- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

With the economy slowing, unemployment rising, inflation accelerating, inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings stagnating (for 80 percent of the labor force), consumer confidence falling, $3-per-gallon gas prices rising and the budget deficit hovering around $300 billion per year, the economy promises to play an important role in this fall’s midterm elections.

Indeed, when asked in a recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll to identify the “single most important issue in your vote for Congress this year,” registered voters considered the economy (21 percent) and gas prices (15 percent) to be cumulatively (i.e., 36 percent) more important than the war in Iraq (21 percent) or terrorism (11 percent). In a recent Newsweek poll, independents, who comprise nearly a third of the electorate, identified the economy as the most important issue.

Among the 60 percent who told the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll that “things are off on the wrong track” (27 percent thought the nation was “headed in the right direction”), 21 percent cited the economy, 20 percent cited increasing gas prices, 10 percent cited the lack of jobs and 6 percent identified the budget deficit. When the poll asked respondents to name the top two priorities the federal government should address, job creation/economic growth was cited by 25 percent; energy/cost of gas was cited by 27 percent and reducing the budget deficit was cited by 12 percent.

The Newsweek poll asked people which political party they trusted to address a series of issues. By 53 percent to 34 percent, respondents trusted Democrats more than Republicans to do a better job with the economy. On the issue of federal spending and the budget deficit, Democrats were preferred over Republicans by 53 percent to 29 percent. To do a better job of lowering gas prices, 52 percent of the public trusted Democrats, compared to the 25 percent who trusted Republicans. While 37 percent approved of the way President Bush is “handling the economy” (61 percent disapproved), according to an August AP-Ipsos poll, only 25 percent approved of the way the president was handling gasoline prices. The same poll revealed that 51 percent would vote for the Democratic candidate in their congressional district, compared to 32 percent who supported the Republican candidate. That 19-point Democratic advantage in August represents an 8-point increase from the 47-36 advantage Democrats enjoyed in May. By 69 percent to 29 percent, the same poll disapproved of the way the Republican-controlled Congress was “handling its job.”

Asked by the recent New York Times/CBS News Poll to “rate the condition of the national economy,” 51 percent said it was either “very good” (5 percent) or “fairly good” (46 percent), while 47 percent rated the economy as “fairly bad” (34 percent) or “very bad” (13 percent). More ominously for Republicans, only 12 percent think the economy is “getting better,” while 47 percent feel the economy is “getting worse.”

At this stage prior to the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans gained 52 seats in the House and also captured control of the Senate, 22 percent thought the economy was “getting better” and 21 percent thought it was “getting worse.” By a 48-36 margin, voters told the NYT/CBS poll that the Democratic Party is “more likely [than the Republican Party] to ensure a strong economy.”

One of the Democrats’ signature economic issues is raising the minimum wage, which, at $5.15 per hour ($10,712 per year for a worker laboring 40 hours per week for 52 weeks), has not increased since 1997, when congressional salaries were $133,600. This year members of Congress will be paid $165,200. This $31,600 annual-salary increase since 1997 represents about three times the annual income ($10,712) of a full-time minimum-wage worker. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a near consensus among economists (and Republicans) that raising the minimum wage will reduce the demand for the labor of the least skilled, Democrats have been demanding that the minimum wage be increased to $7.25 per hour. According to the NYT/CBS poll, 85 percent of the public agrees with the Democrats, with 74 percent “strongly favor[ing]” the minimum-wage increase.

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