Tuesday’s election brought us yet another round of reminders that, in much of the country, Americans seem to like certain Democratic policy ideas much, much more than they like Democratic politicians.
The starkest example came from Florida, where 61 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative that will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, even as Donald Trump soundly defeated Joe Biden there. Biden campaigned on a $15 federal minimum wage, while Trump opposed it. But Floridians decided they wanted the Republican candidate, with a side order of the Democratic platform.
Marijuana was another big winner on Tuesday, even in places that frustrated Democrats, who are generally the pro-pot party. Along with Biden-friendly New Jersey and Arizona, both Montana and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational use, while Mississippians backed medical cannabis. Red states. Blue states. Purple states. These days, it seems, they’ll all vote leafy green.
These results should not come as a great shock at this point. Marijuana legalization is overwhelmingly popular in the United States; according to Pew, 67 percent of Americans supported it in 2019, an all-time high (hey-o!). And while pro-cannabis ballot measures do sometimes go down in defeat—Ohio and North Dakota rejected recreational use in 2015 and 2018, respectively—they’ve had a solid record in recent years. Florida may be the first Republican-leaning state to embrace a full $15 minimum wage. But two years ago, voters passed ballot initiatives that will eventually raise the pay to $12 in Missouri and $11 in Arkansas. The votes weren’t even close.
Along with the minimum wage and marijuana, there’s a third Democratic policy issue starting with “m” that voters in red states often seem to favor. That would be Medicaid expansion. Though it wasn’t on the ballot anywhere this year, it has previously passed via initiatives in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah, along with independent-minded Maine.
Why is it that the three m’s seem to have so much bipartisan appeal? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because each of them is a fairly simple, easy-to-understand policy that can make a concrete difference in people’s lives and appeals to Americans’ sense of fairness without overly upsetting the status quo. Do you think workers deserve to be able to support themselves? Then vote for that minimum wage hike. Do you think everyone deserves health care, even if you’re nervous about the government toying with your own plan? Then back Medicaid. Do you think people should be able to enjoy a mostly harmless buzz without having to worry about the cops? Then legalize ganja. These aren’t complicated tax credits or grand schemes to combat income inequality. They’re bread-and-butter items that people like, and that Republicans tend to stubbornly oppose (especially the Medicaid expansion).
Democrats are now finding themselves in the odd and somewhat depressing position of having (likely) won the presidency while losing House seats and, depending on what happens in Georgia’s runoff races, very possibly falling short in the Senate. The result is already prompting soul-searching about why the party still has such difficulty reaching not just rural and white voters without college degrees, but also many working-class Hispanics who seem to have gravitated more to Donald Trump in places like Florida and Texas.
I won’t pretend to have a magic formula for fixing this situation. But it probably can’t hurt to simplify the party’s policy message a bit and emphasize the parts people clearly like. Right now, minimum wage hikes, Medicaid, and marijuana seem to be a winning trio, and the party could do plenty to center them more. Democrats could promise to pass a higher minimum wage, even if it requires eliminating the filibuster; they could promise to expand Medicaid to more working-class Americans (which, by the way, would likely be less expensive than subsidizing private Obamacare coverage); and, given that even politicians like Chuck Schumer are staunchly pro-legalization now, the party could talk up its position on weed a bit more (even without Congress, a President Joe Biden could show some good faith by rescheduling the drug). Tell the people you’ll give them what they want.