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Talks in the Senate to extend emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed collapsed on Tuesday, dooming the chance for the bill to be brought to the floor for a vote. As a result, emergency unemployment benefits created during the financial crisis to assist millions of Americans remain restricted.

The breakdown of negotiations on this bill may signal typical Washington dysfunction, but for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in 2014, it may signal something else: opportunity.

Economic issues, be they unemployment benefits, the minimum wage, or strengthening the middle class, are paramount to a large number of voters. They’re also issues on which Democratic candidates can capitalize.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that an overwhelming majority of American voters view the economy as the top issue in the 2014 congressional elections. According to the poll, 75 percent of likely voters listed it as the most important factor influencing their vote. More important for Democrats, voters side with them on specific economic issues that are being debated in Congress.

On something like unemployment benefits, there are statistical arguments to be made that reinforce the Democratic position. Broadly, economists widely agree that an extension to unemployment benefits will be beneficial to the U.S. economy. More specifically, the Economic Policy Institute argues, “Continuing the extensions through 2014 would generate spending that would support 310,000 jobs. If this program is discontinued, the economy will lose these jobs.

An extension to unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed is a slam-dunk for Democrats on a political level—it is neither controversial nor an economic risk. Popular with voters, it is an issue that both directly aligns them with the Democratic Party and touches a wide range of voting blocs. As The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog points out, the long-term unemployed are a diverse group; they are young people just out of college, middle-aged workers, high-school dropouts, or married with children.

This graph, put together by The Carville-Greenberg Memo, shows just how popular extending benefits for the long-term unemployed is to voters:


Republican leadership in the House is open to extending long-term unemployment benefits, but only if the extension is “paid for.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said House Republicans “would consider extending emergency unemployment benefits if it was paid for and if there were provisions that we could agree to that get our economy moving again.”

But cuts to other popular social programs, which would “pay for” unemployment benefits, remain extremely unpopular. A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health shows that a clear majority of Americans—58 percent—want no cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare. But 71 percent would be open to cuts in defense spending, according to the poll.

Another “social safety net” issue Democrats stand to gain supporters on is the effort to raise the minimum wage. Like an extension to unemployment benefits, there is the statistical evidence put forth by hundreds of economists for why an increase would be beneficial to the U.S. economy. It would be “an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy. The costs to other groups in society will be modest and readily absorbed,” wrote over 100 economists in a June 2013 letter.

As The National Memo has pointed out time and again, raising the minimum wage would be an obviously beneficial political move for Democrats. A July Hart Research Poll found that an increase is supported by 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 62 percent of Republicans. Furthermore, a November Gallup poll found support for the issue in similar numbers to the research done by Hart:

minimum wage

The widespread support among voters for hallmark Democratic economic policies prompts us to ask: What do Democrats stand to lose by playing up these policies? And what do they stand to win?

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad


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