Workers’ Pay Issues Could Decide Key 2016 U.S. Senate Races, Polls Reveal

by Mitchell Hirsch, NELP Action

In an election where control of the Senate hangs in the balance, where Democrats could win back the majority with as few as four victories in states with Republican-held seats up in 2016, 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.

That’s the message from a series of polls released ahead of Labor Day that show incumbent Senate Republicans in several swing states facing tough reelection battles could be upended by their stands on policies affecting pay.  The polls reveal overwhelming support among voters in seven battleground states for raising the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at the poverty-level $7.25 per hour since 2009 due to Republican opposition in Congress, and for the new federal rule that vastly expands overtime pay guarantees to millions of salaried workers.  The polls in all seven states also showed strong majorities support a gradually phased in $15 minimum wage.

Perhaps most significantly, the polls showed that when voters weigh candidates’ positions on raising the federal minimum wage and expanding overtime pay, support for Republican Senate incumbents declined and support for their Democratic challengers increased, shifting the leads to the Democrats in some races and adding to their leads in others.  In all seven states polled, the minimum wage and overtime issues produced a net shift of between three and eight points in initial and follow up polling results.  In three states – Arizona, Missouri, and North Carolina – what were initial polling leads or ties for Republican incumbents flipped to leads for the Democratic candidates. In three other states – New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Democratic challengers added to existing leads.  According to the poll results, workers’ pay issues could be decisive in potential Republican losses in six of the seven Senate races polled.

Senate polls before and after considering candidates’ positions on workers’ pay issues

senate7pollchart

The polls, which can be viewed here and here, were conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) for the NELP Action Fund among likely voters in Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin between August 26 and 29.  In all seven states, incumbent Republican senators are running for reelection this year, each with a record of voting against raising the federal minimum wage.

Voters across the swing states supported raising the federal minimum wage by approximately a 70% to 25% margin:

Support or oppose raising the federal minimum wage above $7.25

State Support Oppose
Arizona 68 28
Missouri 67 26
New Hampshire 74 24
North Carolina 72 23
Ohio 70 26
Pennsylvania 74 23
Wisconsin 70 26

 

Similarly, they supported raising the federal minimum wage first to $10, and then gradually to $15 over several years by roughly a 60% to 35% margin across the swing states:

Support or oppose gradually increasing federal minimum wage to $15

State Support Oppose
Arizona 60 37
Missouri 57 38
New Hampshire 63 34
North Carolina 61 34
Ohio 60 36
Pennsylvania 62 35
Wisconsin 63 33

 

Even stronger support was revealed for the expansion of the overtime pay guarantee for salaried workers paid less than $47,476 – up from $23,660 per year – under a new rule scheduled to take effect in December.  Under the rule, an additional 12.5 million salaried workers will be entitled to time-and-a-half overtime pay for any hours worked in excess of forty hours a week.  In the polls, support for the overtime expansion ranged from 76 to 81 percent, with monumental margins over those opposed ranging from 60 to 67 points.

Support or oppose expansion of overtime pay coverage for salaried workers making less than $47,000

State Support Oppose
Arizona 77 16
Missouri 76 16
New Hampshire 76 18
North Carolina 79 14
Ohio 80 14
Pennsylvania 81 15
Wisconsin 81 14

 

Voters were also asked how these issues would tend to affect their preferences in this year’s elections, both generically and in regard to specific candidates, and the results were remarkably consistent. Informed that Senate Republicans are actively seeking to block implementation of the overtime expansion, majorities in all seven states said they would be less likely or far less likely to support a candidate who sought to block the new rule, with less than a quarter more likely to support that candidate.

Similarly, when informed that the Republican incumbent senator running for reelection in their state opposes raising the federal minimum wage, a majority of voters in all seven states said they were less likely or far less likely to vote for that candidate, versus those more likely, with margins ranging from 50-39 in Ohio to 61-31 in Wisconsin.  And when told that the Democratic challenger for the Senate supports raising the federal minimum wage, majorities in each state said they were more likely or far more likely to vote for that candidate, versus those less likely, by margins ranging from 51-38 in Ohio to 61-31 in Wisconsin.

Of the seven states polled, four (New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) are among the 21 states where the minimum wage is stuck at the federal $7.25 per hour.  The minimum wage in the three other states is only slightly higher (Arizona $8.05, Missouri $7.65, Ohio $8.10) — and those states would still be stuck at the federal $7.25 as well, were it not for modest increases enacted by voters through ballot initiatives.

Politico broke the initial national story on the PPP polls, quoting NELP Action Fund executive director Christine Owens saying “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.”

The significance of the polls, and the prospect they signal that workers’ pay issues could affect the outcome of key Senate races, has been picked up in state coverage as well.  In Missouri, the Springfield News-Leader ran a lengthy feature news story focused on the results showing voters flipping the lead in the race from Senator Roy Blunt (R) to his challenger, Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), after weighing their stands on raising the minimum wage.  And, according to the blog Daily Kos, the Kander campaign was quick to promote the poll’s clear message, urging supporters to join the candidate’s call to raise the federal minimum wage.

In Pennsylvania, Penn Live highlighted the boost that Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is getting for actively campaigning for a $15 minimum wage while incumbent Senator Pat Toomey will likely pay a price with voters for his opposition to any minimum wage increase.  Similarly, in Wisconsin, Madison’s Capital Times featured the overwhelming 63 percent support the poll revealed for a $15 federal minimum wage, and this quote from Wisconsin Working Families co-chairman Peter Rickman: “This poll demonstrates that voters are looking to elect leaders who will raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, after decades of stagnant wage growth and dramatic growth of economic inequality.  Sen. Johnson does not even believe in a minimum wage, while former Sen. Feingold is a strong advocate for $15 — so we are engaging working people to find out more about the candidates and their positions on the $15 minimum wage at the ballot box.”

In Ohio, where Democratic Senate challenger Ted Strickland picked up three points in the follow up poll but remained six points behind incumbent Senator Rob Portman – the only challenger to not lead the incumbent in the follow up poll results – WCSM Radio reported on the 60 percent support from Ohioans for a $15 minimum wage. “Raising the minimum wage has bipartisan support among voters,” WCSM quoted NELP Action’s Paul Sonn as saying, “and leading strategists such as Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, have warned if you are fighting against a minimum-wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle because most Americans, even most Republicans, support it.”

In the 2016 election cycle, a total of 34 U.S. Senate seats are being contested – 10 currently held by Democrats and 24 by Republicans, who now hold a slim four seat majority in that chamber.  With the polls in seven swing states showing the potential for losses by incumbents who oppose boosting workers’ pay, voters across the country this year can help break the Republicans’ blockade against raising the federal minimum wage.

Related stories

Opposing a Minimum Wage Hike Could Cost the GOP the Senate – Op-ed by Paul Sonn in Newsweek

With survey showing support for overtime rules, where do GOP senators stand? – Op-ed by Judy Conti in The Hill