A version of this post appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free blog.

In 2004, the American news media made much of the finding that a fifth of voters picked “moral values” as the most important issue in deciding their vote–as many as cited terrorism or the economy. Many pundits quickly concluded that moral values were ascendant as a political issue. What soon emerged, however, was that this poorly devised exit poll –and a dose of spin –threatened to undermine our understanding of the 2004 presidential election. What the poll failed to address, for example, was the definition of “moral value.” It’s common sense to understand it’s a phrase that means different things to different people. But many in the media quickly concluded that “moral values” only appealed to people who oppose abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. But why not consider that “moral value” also appeals to people who oppose torture, poverty, war, the death penalty and environmental degradation?

Fast forward to 2006 and the midterm Congressional elections. It’s still hard to predict but I think the minimum wage will emerge as the moral values issue of November’s midterm elections. Two large reasons: the war and the economy. The other, and related to the first two: “hot button” social issues like same-sex marriage or abortion have dimmed in importance. In Ohio, where one of the hottest Senate races in the country is being waged (it looks like the populist Democratic candidate Sherrod Brown will win) on-the-ground reporting shows that not much is being said on the campaign trail about what are often called the three “Gs”–gays, guns and God. One article quotes a longtime Republican–someone who saw President Bush in 2004 as a man who reflected his own moral and Christian beliefs–as fed up with how his party has “overplayed its churchiness.”

What’s resonating this year in Ohio–and in most parts of the US–is the reality that the economic prosperity President Bush and the GOP constantly tout isn’t to be found in factories or on Main Streets around the country. It certainly isn’t benefiting people who are working harder than ever just to keep up with mounting personal debt, healthcare costs and pension obligations. And it isn’t benefiting Ohio’s economy –where 200,000 jobs have been lost since 2000. That’s why the minimum wage ballot initiative is capturing some 70 percent support. (The initiative would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.85 and index it to inflation. And, according to Policy Matter Ohio, a progressive think tank, increasing it would benefit about 700,000 low wage workers.)

Advocates of the measure –a coalition of faith groups, labor unions and progressive activists –are consciously framing an increase in the minimum wage as a moral values issue. As one activist put it: ” Rewarding hard work with a fair wage is not just an abstract pocketbook economic issue but a statement of values.” And it’s made easier considering that for nearly a decade a Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly refused to raise the federal minimum wage from its shameful low of $5.15 per hour, yet they have raised their own salaries nine times–to about $165,000 a year.

The “Let Justice Roll” coalition (letjusticeroll.org) –an alliance of religious denominations, including Baptists and evangelicals–community, labor and business groups–is playing a leading role in five states (Ohio, Montana, Missouri, Arizona and Colorado) where raising the minimum wage is on the ballot. In a recent statement, “Let Justice Roll” organizers pointed out that “The Golden Rule–Do to others what you would have them do to you–is the most universal value, found in most religions. CEOs who make millions while paying poverty wages, Congress members who approve pay raises for themselves while denying a raise to low-wage workers: these are widely seen as violating the Golden Rule.”

In just a few days, we’ll know whether the minimum wage is the values issue of the 2006 election. And we’ll also find out if we’re witnessing the emergence of a new economic populism in America.