Will the minimum-wage issue drive Democrats to the polls next November? Some Democrats certainly hope so, as indicated by this Wall Street Journal story on President Obama's travel to Michigan to emphasize the issue in an event with Senate candidate Rep. Gary Peters. Democratic strategists note, accurately, that large majorities favor raising the minimum wage, from whatever it is to whatever it is proposed to be. And large majorities of Democrats and majorities almost as large of Independents say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage.
But how many people are really moved by the issue? The vast majority of people earning the minimum wage at any given time are not heads of households, but rather second or third or fourth earners — often teenagers working part-time. For them, an increase in the minimum wage would be welcome (unless it caused their employer to end their job) but not of life-altering significance. And of course, many minimum wage earners are only marginal voters, because they are young and transient, because they have few community ties or obligations — there are any number of reasons. And one suspects it's an issue of limited salience for those in households where no one earns anything like the minimum wage.
All of which suggests that while raising the minimum wage has widespread support, it generates little intensity. Nor is it likely to overshadow issues which are more important to voters because they are related to big events (war, the sluggish macroeconomy) or connected with deep beliefs (on cultural and religious issues).
Evidence for this view comes when you look at the dateline of the Wall Street Journal story: Ann Arbor, Mich. Ann Arbor, of course, is a university town, full of affluent professionals as well as students and graduate school hangers-on. You’ll see lots of t-shirts as the weather warms up, but you won’t see much in the way of an industrial proletariat. Indeed, Ann Arbor is a prime example of how the blue-collar working class has been replaced as a prime Democratic party constituency by affluent gentry liberals. Ann Arbor is currently represented in the House of Representatives by America’s longest-serving-ever member of Congress, John Dingell. When he was first elected in December 1955, his district was entirely within the city of Detroit and included a heavily Polish working class area. After a 1964 redistricting, the focus of Dingell’s district moved west, into Dearborn, headquarters of the Ford Motor Company and its giant River Rouge plant, then the largest auto plant in the world. Dingell’s current district still includes part of Dearborn, but its biggest Democratic margins now come out of Ann Arbor. Voters there gave Dingell a big margin when he encountered a spirited Republican challenge in 2010 and, now that he has announced he is not running for reelection this year, it looks like Ann Arbor will produce a big majority for his politically able wife, Debbie Dingell.
My sense is that Democrats are emphasizing the minimum wage issue not because there’s a big proletarian or private sector union constituency for it, but because it polls better than just about any other issue they can think of. And I think my thesis is supported by the fact that the site they chose for a presidential event on the issue was not some blue collar community but a university town like Ann Arbor, the real heartland of at least a very large part of the Democratic Party today.