Hillary Clinton is never going to be confused for an economic populist. Her record as a key player in Bill Clinton’s administration, as a United States senator, as secretary of state and as a favorite on the corporate speaking circuit in recent years bends a lot more toward Wall Street than Main Street.
But Hillary Clinton understands something important—make that vital—about the politics of 2014.
Clinton recognizes that the issue that matters in 2014 is the economy (number one in the latest Gallup Poll) and that voters want “good jobs” that pay a family-supporting wage (number two in the latest Gallup survey). And Clinton knows that the clearest policy connection between where the economy is today and where it needs to be is made via support for a substantial hike in the minimum wage.
So when the presumed Democratic front-runner in 2016 swept into Kentucky this week to muscle up the US Senate campaign of Clinton-family favorite Alison Lundergan Grimes, Clinton was on message—far more on message, in fact, than most prominent Democrats who have hit the trail this month in an effort to save the Senate, win governorships and generally prevent the 2014 midterms from going the way of the 2010 midterms.
Clinton devoted a substantial portion of her speech in Kentucky—as she has other speeches on a busy schedule of appearances on behalf of Democrats in tight races—to specific and aggressive appeals for voters to cast their ballots with an eye toward increasing the minimum wage.
Mitch McConnell, Grimes’s opponent, has made his opposition to hiking wages for the lowest-paid workers in Kentucky and across the country abundantly clear. When he met with the Koch brothers and their allies at a supposedly secret gathering in California last June, the Kentuckian said that if Republicans take charge of the Senate after the November election, “we’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals…things like raising the minimum wage.”
Grimes is different. She supports federal proposals to raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. And that’s the stance that Clinton highlighted in her Kentucky swing on behalf of Grimes.
Noting, correctly, that the “scales are weighted against working families,” Clinton told a huge crowd in Louisville, “The truth is not that raising the minimum wage destroys jobs. That has not happened. My husband raised the minimum wage when he was president. I voted to raise the minimum wage when I was a senator. Why? Not only to help minimum wage workers but the ripple effect of raising the minimum wage will add hundreds of millions of dollars to this state’s economy and lift thousands of Kentucky families out of poverty.”
Clinton wove the minimum-hike appeal into her speech at various points, reminding the crowd, “Many of those women, single moms, a lot of them are working two, three jobs just to keep their families afloat. Don’t you think they need a little understanding and support? Don’t you think they deserve a senator who will fight to give them the boost they need?”
Clinton also made it clear that McConnell is not that senator.
“If we are going to make sure that the workers across Kentucky finally get an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage of $10.10 an hour and get rid of one who’s voted against it 17 times,” the former senator from New York said, “it takes Kentucky.”
Of course, raising the minimum wage is smart economic policy.
But it is also smart politics.
Fresh data on the political potency of appeals for a wage-hike comes from the NELP (National Employment Law Project) Action Fund, which commissioned surveys in six battleground states by Public Policy Polling. The polling found that there is “strong support for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and that Republican candidates could face backlash for their opposition to the raise.”
“A majority of voters in every state supports increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, by margins ranging from 14 to 28 points,” according to an analysis by the pollster. “On average more than 80% of Democrats support the increase, as do at least a plurality of independents and an average of about 30% of Republicans in each state.”
In Kentucky, voters favored a substantial increase in the federal minimum wage by a 56-35 margin.
Seventy-four percent of Kentuckians said they could not live on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Most importantly, from a political standpoint, 39 percent of Kentuckians said that if they knew a Republican candidate was opposed to raising the minimum wage, they would be less likely to vote for that candidate.
The numbers from the Senate battleground states of Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina were strikingly similar, as were the numbers from the gubernatorial battleground states of Illinois and Wisconsin.
The bottom line is this: Hillary Clinton may not be a populist, but she is a savvy politician. And she recognizes a reality: Americans are ready and willing to vote for a dramatically higher minimum wage—and for the candidates who support it.