Ever look at a national opinion poll and find that the majority of Americans feel a certain thing is a good idea and in fact agree with you? Do you breathe a sigh of relief upon finding yourself in the majority? Do you wonder how it is that those very bills die in Congress? (More)

Extending Unemployment Insurance Benefits:

Take extending unemployment insurance benefits which 58% of registered voters approve. As with any poll, the devil is in the details:

The poll, which was released Wednesday, indicates a partisan divide, with overwhelming support from Democrats (83%-13%), majority backing from independents (54%-41%), and opposition from Republicans by a 54%-42% margin.

“If a candidate for Congress supports extending jobless benefits, 33 percent are more likely to vote for that candidate, with 24 percent less likely and 40 percent who say it won’t affect their vote,” says a release from Quinnipiac University.

Forget for a minute about the 1.3 million people who are losing their benefits. A Republican voting no or obstructing the process will succeed in getting reelected by voting no or blocking this and needn’t dare care about the unemployed in his or her own district. The idea of ‘paying for’ the benefits with cuts elsewhere is sought as cover. You will notice that the same Republicans don’t ask for offsets for tax cuts for the rich. They didn’t ask that the Iraq War be paid for as it was waged. They didn’t look for how to pay for the $25 billion their shutdown cost the economy before they voted on that either. If the Republican base approves, no offsetting cuts are needed.

Republican Senators in states with high unemployment rates voted with the Democrats to at least start the debate.

Democrats were not terribly optimistic that an accord could be reached, though they said that fiscally conscious Republicans also feeling heat from struggling constituents had been receptive to genuine negotiations.
Tuesday’s [1/7] vote merely got the Senate to consider the unemployment bill formally. The six Republicans who voted yes included moderates like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, but also conservatives from states with unemployment rates above the national average, like Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Dan Coats of Indiana.

I think those Republicans with suffering constituents offer us a glimmer of hope and an opportunity. Alas, no. The GOP is filibustering UI benefits.

The Minimum Wage

Raising the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25/hour has received lots of attention as an important part of reducing income inequality and providing a livable wage for the working poor. Gallup polls show that 76% support raising it to $9/hour.

Republicans are the least supportive of hiking the minimum wage to $9 but not tethering it to inflation, with 58% saying they would vote in favor and 39% against it. By comparison, 91% of Democrats and 76% of independents would favor it.
Tying the minimum wage to inflation, however, sparks stronger resistance from Republicans, with an outright majority (56%) voting down the hypothetical proposal and 43% voting for it. Independents are slightly less amenable to the measure, with 71% saying they would vote for it, while Democrats’ views are essentially the same.

Before we get too excited about the prospects, remember this:

Republicans in Congress would appear to agree with rank-and-file Republicans, in that the U.S. House of Representatives in March [2013] voted down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015, with all Republicans voting against it.

Support for raising the minimum wage has been steadily increasing. Since the vote last March, think of all the rallies by fast food workers to draw attention to their low wages, lack of benefits and working conditions. Think of the attention devoted to how much taxpayers subsidize corporations who pay low wages, don’t provide health benefits and how the working poor fair.

Low paid fast food workers cost taxpayers $3.8 billion/year. McDonald’s accounts for $1.2 billion of this and the next nine fast food companies account for the rest.

Walmart also relies on taxpayer subsidies to offset the ability of their employees to live on what they make.

The UC Berkeley study’s finding that the average Walmart employee requires $1,952 per year in assistance is very similar to the results of another study released this year, in spite of the fact that the two studies used different methodologies. The other study, produced by U.S. Representative George Miller, found that Walmart workers cost taxpayers $2,100 per year on average.

Getting the information out about the taxpayer subsidies would seem to have contributed to the increasing approval for raising the minimum wage. The press coverage of fast food worker rallies also raised awareness that America has large numbers of working poor and that the real welfare queens are corporations who don’t pay a livable wage.

But the issue of extending unemployment benefits, and a separate push to raise the minimum wage, could easily turn into campaign themes. Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois, said Democrats wanted “to have Republicans vote no, so they can bash them in the next election.”

And Democrats did not exactly deny that. Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “If the Republicans refuse to pass unemployment insurance and cling to their opposition to increasing the minimum wage, these will be bookend issues for 2014.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to make both of these issues count before the next election. I’ll bet the 1.3 million unemployed losing benefits would like it. I bet the low paid workers in fast food and retail would like it too.

Gun Safety

Gallup has polling data on gun issues going back to 1990. In 1990, 78% of respondents thought that “laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict.” We are down to 49% now. The NRA and the pro-gun lobbies have spent 24 years on a campaign to increase gun sales and decrease gun safety. We have to be willing to fight as long and as hard to top them. After every mass shooting support for stricter gun laws spikes.

The Pew Research Center displayed some divides among Americans on gun-control issues in a 2011 survey. For example, 51% of men want more gun rights, compared with just 33% of women. By comparison, 57% of women think it’s more important to control gun ownership, vs. just 41% of men. Whites would rather “protect gun rights” (51%) than control gun ownership (42%). By contrast, African-Americans turn the other way, 68-24.

Republicans prefer “protecting gun rights” by a 69-27 margin. Democrats favor controlling ownership, 72-20. Independents narrowly side with Democrats on the issue.

In another poll taken after the Aurora theater shooting:

  • 74% support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun.
  • 79% support requiring gun retailers to perform background checks on all employees.
  • 75% believe concealed carry permits should only be granted to applicants who have not committed any violent misdemeanors, including assault.
  • 74% believe permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed gun safety training.

Despite the waning support for new gun laws, 85% favor a law that would require federal background checks on all gun purchases. That includes 84% of Republicans, 81% of Independents, and 92% of Democrats. The issue of background checks still seems the most politically palatable for Congress.

Of the 85% of us who support background checks on all gun purchases, how many even called or emailed their members of Congress? Did we read the polls and say to ourselves, “Surely that will pass?” You can bet that the NRA made those calls.

Marriage Equality and Legalizing Marijuana

These are two issues where the older polls reflect many of the political divides seen in extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage. On legalizing marijuana Gallup shows a 58% approval with a 10 point surge in the last year alone. Democrats and Independents favor legalization while Republicans remain opposed. Most of the 10 point surge is attributed to independents.

Support for marriage equality is at 53%. “Just three years ago, support for gay marriage was 44%. The current 53% level of support is essentially double the 27% in Gallup’s initial measurement on gay marriage, in 1996.” A more detailed look at polling on marriage equality is available here. 17 states have marriage equality. Utah and Oklahoma are stuck in the court system.

What Can We Do?

Another way to ask this question is what strategies move opinion polls? Have we learned any lessons in the fight for marriage equality or the legalization of marijuana that might help us extend unemployment insurance or raise the minimum wage? Can we move the congress to action on even background checks for gun purchases?

Get Personal

Support for legalizing marijuana was higher when people were asked if they had ever used it. 38% have tried it according to Gallup. My hunch is that the number who know someone who has used it would be even higher. Anyone with a family member or friend who has used medical marijuana can certainly tell powerful stories of the benefits.

Minnesotans United for All Families was the coalition that led to Minnesota passing marriage equality. Our volunteers were trained to tell personal stories about their friends and families who were in committed LGBT relationships and wanted the freedom to marry. The stories were personal and took the away the “othering factor” that made it more okay to discriminate.

Talk with Fred. “Fred” is your family members, your friends, your neighbors and your co-workers. Fred mostly gets his information from talking with other people he/she knows. Get personal with Fred. Listen and share your personal stories about someone you know who is unemployed or under-employed.

There is the in the story the power to open minds and hearts. If you or a family member or friend have been unemployed or poor tell those stories. The same goes for being touched by gun violence.

Get Visible

All the rallies by fast food workers, the Occupy Protests and the Walmart walkouts finally got frequent enough to bring media attention to the issues of low wages, income inequality and working conditions.

Minnesotans United marched in local parades and sold lawn signs and T-shirts. We were visible in local communities and it worked. We wrote letters to the editor.

Join an organization like Working America and share the posts on social media. Join OFA.

Contact Your Members of Congress

You can find your members here. Phone their offices and/or send a short email to let them know how you’d like them to vote on a specific issue. If you want unemployment insurance benefits extended, let them know. If you want the minimum wage raised (and indexed to inflation) let them know. You may think that your senators or representative are so far right that why bother. If we could get every Democrat in a right wing district to make contact, we might just overwhelm them. We might make them think twice. Okay so we might not change them but it would at least be irritating.

Michele Bachmann is my representative. I email her a lot. I’ve come to think of her as a pen pal who doesn’t speak the same language and rarely writes back but I write her anyway. I write for the satisfaction of being able to say “Not all of us agree with you” when she goes off on what she thinks the American people want.

Vote and Volunteer

When Democrats turnout and vote, we can win. Make sure your voter registration is up to date. Then join your local Democratic Party and volunteer to help with voter registration and voter turnout. WE need you! We NEED you! We need YOU!

In Summary:

Take the long view. [In 2013] 87% Approve of Black-White Marriage, vs. 4% in 1958 Some changes take a long time.

All those polls do not equal votes in Congress. They do mean that the “American people” are with the Democrats on many of the issues of working and want-to-be-working people. It is up to us to make sure that those same folks that respond to polls show up at the ultimate polling place and vote. It is up to each of us to keep our country working for “We the People.” The only poll that really counts is election day.