The Surprising Liberalism Of Some Republican Voters

Why Florida voted for Donald Trump and raising the minimum wage.

Last week’s election held many surprises. Here’s a head-scratcher: At the same time Florida voters backed President Donald Trump in the presidential election by a roughly 3-percentage-point margin, they overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, by more than 20 percentage points.

President-elect Joe Biden has supported the $15 minimum wage. Trump has not. It’s just one of several economic policies that a sizable number of Republican voters favor even though Republican politicians don’t.

“Party platforms are not intended to capture the average opinion even of partisans within the party,” said Vanessa Williamson, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied Republican voters’ views for years. “Parties make decisions based on the preferences of highly organized groups within the party.”

“Rank-and-file Republican voters relatively commonly hold positive attitudes about certain progressive economic policies, particularly the minimum wage but also raising taxes on wealthy people.”

- Vanessa Williamson, Brookings Institution

While Democratic voters generally support progressive economic policies, Republicans are more divided, Williamson has found, with lower-income Republicans more supportive of things like taxing the rich and requiring companies to pay a higher minimum wage. One out of every five Republicans has economic views that align better with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, according to a 2019 analysis of voter survey data that Williamson co-authored with Lee Drutman, a political reform researcher at the New America Foundation think tank, and Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute think tank.

“Rank-and-file Republican voters relatively commonly hold positive attitudes about certain progressive economic policies, particularly the minimum wage but also raising taxes on wealthy people,” Williamson said.

When asked for their opinions on new policies or issues, voters often tend to take cues from their parties’ leaders ― one reason that the partisan divides on topics like free trade or foreign policy have tended to fluctuate wildly. On some progressive economic issues, however, support among rank-and-file Republicans seems to outpace supportive messaging from GOP officials.

  • Minimum wage: Raising the minimum wage is also popular nationally. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of Americans, including 43% of Republican and Republican-leaning independents, favored raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

  • Taxing the rich: Last year, Americans said by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, 54% to 26%, that the government should try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans, a HuffPost/YouGov survey found. In that survey, about one-third of Republicans supported the idea.

  • Paid leave: Three-quarters of Americans favor requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days if they or an immediate family member gets sick, a March 2020 HuffPost/YouGov poll found, with two-thirds of Republicans backing the idea.

  • Unemployment and COVID-19 relief: A slim majority of Americans thought Congress should reauthorize the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits that lawmakers allowed to expire at the end of July, with 40% of Republicans favoring the benefits, according to an August 2020 HuffPost/YouGov poll. Republicans in Congress, by contrast, were almost unanimous that the $600 was too much and that no worker should receive more in unemployment than they did from their jobs.

Americans regularly cite the economy as a top election issue, but that concern rarely translates into a cleanly drawn line between voters’ policy preferences and their eventual voting decisions. Few people base their votes on a checklist of issues, and even broader views of the economy have become increasingly entangled with political polarization.

Though they won the White House and might take the Senate, Democrats have been disappointed with their performance in congressional races, having lost Senate races they expected to win while failing to expand their House majority. Some moderates have complained that progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) brought too much attention to progressive policy goals, such as expanding Medicare coverage to everybody. Ocasio-Cortez countered that every swing-district candidate who co-sponsored a “Medicare for All” bill kept their seat.

In general, Democratic candidates, including Biden, focused more on health care and made less noise about taxing the rich or raising the minimum wage.

At the final presidential debate in October, Biden responded to a question by saying he supported a $15 minimum wage but quickly pivoted to the importance of bailing out small businesses. In response, Trump said the higher wage would hurt employers.

“I think it should be a state option,” Trump said, essentially endorsing the idea of having no federal minimum at all. “Alabama is different than New York. New York is different from Vermont. Every state is different. It should be a state option.”

Trump has occasionally hinted at support for progressive policies but mostly governed as a conventional Republican focused on tax cuts and deregulation. Exit polls suggested the president fared better than Biden among voters with incomes above $100,000.

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