In two so-called “red” states that favored George W. Bush on November 2, voters also overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to raise the minimum wage by one dollar, to $6.15 an hour. In Florida, where Bush beat John Kerry by 381,000 votes, voters favored the minimum wage increase by 3.1 million votes (a lopsided 71.3 percent to 28.7 percent), despite the opposition of the state’s business community and Governor Jeb Bush. In Nevada, Bush narrowly beat Kerry by 21,500 votes, but voters backed the wage boost by 293,328 votes (68.3 percent to 31.6 percent).
The minimum-wage measures won in every county in both states. In conservative Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in the Florida Panhandle, where military bases and retired military veterans dominate the political culture, more than two-thirds of voters supported the wage boost, about the same margins they gave Bush. In Nevada’s richest county, Douglas, near the Lake Tahoe resort area, where Bush garnered 63.5 percent of the vote, 61.5 percent of voters supported raising the minimum wage.
Obviously, many Floridians and Nevadans, including many middle-class voters (and certainly some evangelicals), who voted for Bush also voted to raise the minimum wage. Both states also saw a significant increase in turnout among low-income and working-class voters, thanks to grassroots voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns by coalitions of progressive groups.
“The minimum-wage campaign brought a lot of people out to vote who otherwise might have stayed home,” explained Brian Kettenring, an organizer for ACORN, a community group that spearheaded the Florida effort. “Most of those new voters probably voted for Kerry, which narrowed Bush’s margin. But we also found that lots of swing voters, who weren’t sure how they were going to vote for President, enthusiastically supported raising the minimum wage.”
But, although Democrats and their allies mobilized an unprecedented get-out-the-vote operation, they were outsmarted and out-hustled by Republicans. Kettenring believes that Kerry might have taken more votes away from Bush in Florida if he had embraced the minimum-wage campaign, as many labor and progressive activists urged him to do. But he inexplicably ignored the issue. It is imperative that Democrats and progressives start a nationwide debate that frames economic justice as a moral issue. Not only would this be the right thing to do. It would seem to be a winning electoral issue.
Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says that the extensive door-to-door field operations on behalf of the minimum-wage increase by unions, community groups and environmental organizations increased voter turnout in target districts, accounting not only for the wage-increase victory but also for the Democrats’ picking up three seats in the State Assembly and one seat in the State Senate. “The issue tugged at people’s heartstrings,” Fulkerson said. “They saw it as a basic matter of fairness.”
Democrats and progressives are once again going through a wrenching self-evaluation about why they lost the White House again and how they can build a majority coalition to win it back. The minimum-wage victories in Florida and Nevada are a political neon sign blinking brightly. In January, when Bush is sworn in for a second term, the array of people and groups who worked to elect John Kerry (unions, environmentalists, community-organizing networks, civil rights groups, disaffected millionaires and religious organizations) should announce a nationwide moral crusade to raise the national minimum wage to the official poverty level–$9.50 an hour–which translates to $19,000 a year.