Minimum Wage Ballot Initiatives Fail to Tamp Down GOP Support

Three states that passed higher minimum wages couldn't push Clinton across finish line

November 16, 2016

Four states passed steep increases to the minimum wage on Election Day, but three of those ballot initiatives failed to drive opposition against Donald Trump and other candidates skeptical of a federal minimum wage increase.

Union organizers and labor activists spent millions of dollars campaigning for minimum wage hikes ranging from $10.10 to $12. Activists predicted that the minimum wage ballot initiatives would boost Hillary Clinton's electoral prospects in swing states and help Democrats capture the Senate. The National Employment Law Project, a liberal legal nonprofit connected to the Democracy Alliance donor group, speculated in October that the minimum wage initiatives could turn out Democratic voters.

"Voters casting their ballots based on workers' pay issues could well determine the outcome and break the gridlock holding back wage increases for millions of America’s workers," the nonprofit stated in a September blog post.

"Swing state voters in this election are looking for candidates who will stand with them in supporting a strong minimum wage increase, and elected officials who oppose raising the minimum wage do so at their political peril," said Christine Owens, executive director of the NELP Action Fund.

Those results failed to materialize on Election Day. Voters in Maine, Arizona, Colorado, and Washington overwhelmingly approved minimum wage ballot initiatives, but failed to put Clinton or her fellow Democrats over the top. Trump won one electoral vote in Maine to Clinton's three—the first time in the state's history that it split its electoral vote and the first time since 1988 that it awarded a Republican an electoral vote. In Arizona, Trump and incumbent Republican Sen. John McCain easily beat their Democratic opponents despite polls suggesting a competitive race. In Colorado, Democrats won statewide races by tighter margins than many polls expected.

Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, a free market think tank opposed to minimum wage increases, said that Democrats have underestimated the extent of vote-splitting between ballot initiatives and candidate elections. More than 70 percent of voters in 2016 said their preferred candidate's position on the minimum wage did not factor in their support, according to a survey the EPI conducted.

"Labor groups overestimated the extent to which voters care about raising the minimum wage," Saltsman said.

A higher minimum wage was central to Hillary Clinton's economic message. Clinton, who supported a $12 minimum wage until the Democratic Party's platform backed the $15 rate favored by labor unions, attacked Trump on the campaign trail and in ads on the issue.

"Donald Trump thinks wages are too high," Clinton said in a major speech on economic policy in July. "He wants to get rid of the federal minimum wage altogether. Well, I think anyone who is willing to work hard should be able to find a job that pays well enough to raise a family. So we’re going to increase the federal minimum wage and give the middle class a raise."

Trump eventually supported a $10 minimum wage—a nearly 40 percent increase from the current federal rate of $7.25.

Maxford Nelsen, a labor policy expert at Washington state's Freedom Foundation, said that most voters make up their minds about candidates based on other factors, and do not closely follow ballot initiatives.

"The issue is minor enough in most voters’ minds as to not affect their opinion of candidates for state or federal office," Nelsen said. "While it enjoys broad support, I think support for a higher minimum wage tends to be pretty shallow. Only a tiny fraction of the voting population works in a minimum-wage job. Most voters are simply far more concerned about other issues. Even when it comes to specifically economic issues, voters are a lot more likely to be concerned about job growth than about a higher minimum wage."

Saltsman said the ballot initiatives demonstrated that voters are more enthusiastic about minimum wage increases at the state level than the national level.

"I think voters showed Congress that there's zero political price to pay for opposing a higher minimum wage at the federal level," he said. "Leaving this issue to the states isn't a perfect solution—the Californias and New Yorks of the world demonstrate that—but it's certainly a less harmful option than a federal rate hike."

Published under: Minimum Wage