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Barth: Minimum wage increase could help Democrats 

click to enlarge MIKE ROSS: Has a winning issue in state minimum wage increase. image
  • Brian Chilson
  • ROSS: Has a winning issue in state minimum wage increase.

NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley came to town last week to report on the effort to raise the state's minimum wage through a ballot measure. While the story focused on the substantive issue of whether it's good policy to increase the wage above the federal wage in a state with the third lowest pay in the nation, lurking just behind was the potential for a vote on the minimum wage to aid the candidacy of embattled Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor. As President Obama has said, increasing the minimum wage "is not just good policy, it also happens to be good politics."

New Arkansas polling this week reaffirms the president's political instincts and strongly suggests that the minimum wage proposal making the ballot is one of which the stars that must align for the Democratic Party to find success in 2014. The latest Talk Business-Hendrix College poll shows an overwhelming 79 percent of Arkansas voters favor a proposal being promoted by Give Arkansas a Raise Now to increase the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour across three years. If the group gets enough signatures on petitions to make the ballot, the wage increase should become law.

Knowing they have a winning issue, Democratic statewide candidates, led by Pryor and certain gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross, are all-in on the Arkansas proposal. Pryor appeared at a press conference in support of the measure in February and has continually reiterated this stance since then, while Ross issued a supportive press release this week. In contrast, Pryor's opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton, has refused to take a stance on the proposal and GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson has expressed opposition to the initiative.

The minimum wage effort has three interlocking benefits for these Democrats and their partisans lower on the Arkansas ballot. First, the signature-gathering process provides an opportunity to enhance the party's database — in messy shape because there has not been a competitive statewide general election here since Pryor's 2002 election — by identifying those tens of thousands of voters who sign the petition as ones particularly moved by the issue. In the Obama era, the power of linking information about individual voters' predilections to a field campaign has been shown again and again. Assuming that field campaign gets up and running (as promised through the national Democratic Party's "Bannock Street project"), this provides some strong ammunition to use in getting proposal supporters to the polls for the Democratic ticket.

To be true turnout fuel, however, there has to be a campaign for the wage once it's on the ballot to match the spending that is currently being employed to get the necessary signatures. A number of recent examples indicate that ballot initiative campaigns can be employed to boost turnout in higher profile elections. In 2004, conservative churches were used in Arkansas and elsewhere to encourage voters concerned about same-sex marriage to get out to vote for "traditional marriage"; in 2012, in Colorado, in particular, a competitive state at the presidential level, marijuana legalization boosted Democratic turnout up and down the ticket. But, both of those efforts had strong built-in grassroots campaigns (and some national money) to boost turnout; despite the measure's popularity, it remains unclear whether those elements are present for the Arkansas minimum wage. Assuming significant spending for both field and media campaigns (possibly funded by national labor groups) the issue could reshape the electorate in a manner that benefits Democrats.

Finally, the minimum wage has the potential to move voters' attention to bread-and-butter economic issues during the fall. The still-populist voters who determine the outcome of Arkansas elections are emphatically conservative on cultural issues but retain a progressive streak on economic matters. When economics are at the forefront of the debate, it's a decidedly fairer fight for Democratic candidates. Polling on the measure shows its particular popularity among some of the groups where Democratic candidates must run well if they are to pull out close wins in the highest profile races and win just enough seats to regain control of the state House. In addition to nearly unanimous support among groups that make up the Democratic base, the minimum wage resonates with two groups that are key targets in the 2014 election cycle — women (83 percent support for the measure) and political independents (76 percent support).

Democratic activists believe that the minimum wage ballot measure is likely worth a couple of percentage points in the final outcomes in the highest profile races. With both the Senate and governor's races shown as essential dead heats in the Talk Business-Hendrix College polling, those couple of points could well be the difference.

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