In closely watched races in eight states where the minimum wage was in focus — Illinois, North Carolina, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin — Senate and gubernatorial candidates who were skeptical of or outright opposed to a wage hike still won. A Washington Post correspondent was direct in his assessment: The minimum wage “did nothing to save Democratic candidates in what were supposedly contested races.”
Last month, activists and pollsters supportive of the strategy were feeling far more confident. On Oct. 13, for instance, left-leaning Public Policy Polling released a memo predicting the minimum wage could be a “decisive issue” in close 2014 races. As recently as a week before the election, Arun Ivatury of the labor union-backed National Employment Law Project boasted that the minimum wage was “playing quite successfully as a wedge issue.”
Serious financial investment from the left followed this confidence. In Nebraska, the group Nebraskans for Better Wages dropped nearly $1.4 million into its ballot campaign effort — despite the fact that there wasn’t even a ballot committee registered to oppose the wage hike. In Arkansas, proponents from Give Arkansas a Raise spent more than $1 million in the last month — again, in a state where business groups spent no money to oppose the wage increase.
This election-year spending spree had very little do with reducing poverty or concern about employees. After all, the dollar amounts under consideration in states such as Arkansas ($8.50) and Nebraska ($9) didn’t even reach the $10.10 wage level that President Barack Obama and his labor allies have identified as the acceptable minimum wage floor. Rather, these were get-out-the-vote efforts by other means. How else to explain a ballot campaign committee for Arkansas that was housed in Washington, D.C., and managed by a Democratic Party operative?
With all of this money and time invested, the strategy still failed. Exit polls provide some direction as to why: According to ABC News, a plurality of voters listed the economy as their top concern. Seven out of 10 voters said that the economy was in bad shape, and 78 percent said they were worried about the economy’s performance over the next year. It shouldn’t be surprising that voters opted for candidates better equipped to help grow the economy, rather than candidates who were skillful at minimum wage rhetoric.
This strategic flop holds important lessons for politicians facing pressure to compromise on their disapproval of a higher minimum wage. If the 2014 elections made anything clear, it’s that principled opposition to a wage hike is not an electoral kiss of death. Indeed, it’s not even a small political headache. Even in instances where proponents spent seven-figure sums to make the minimum wage an election issue, voters were apparently making their decisions based on other factors.
There’s also a lesson here for the business community: You can’t win if you don’t fight. Of the four states (none considered liberal) where the minimum wage was on the ballot, only one — South Dakota — had a coordinated opposition campaign. Even though that campaign was modestly funded, it’s not a coincidence that the margin of loss in South Dakota (55 percent voted to raise the wage) was far smaller than in the other three states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska). If you opt to sit on the sidelines because of misplaced fears about political harm or the likelihood of failure, only one thing is guaranteed: You will lose.
With 2016 on the horizon, politicians need to double down on principled opposition to a higher minimum wage — and it’s time for the business community to have the courage of its convictions.