Electoral Consequences of the Pay Hike

September 21, 2005

By G. Terry Madonna and Berwood Yost, Franklin & Marshall College


The pay hike enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in July continues to be a source of debate and controversy almost three months later. Unlike previous pay increases that evoked only mild, short-lived responses, the July increase has triggered a debate that just will not go away. Activist groups with completely different ideologies have joined to lobby for its repeal. Talk show hosts are gathering signatures to encourage the same. Myriad television and newspaper accounts just won’t let the story die. All of the attention and anger even has encouraged many lawmakers who voted for the increase to reverse their positions. Yet, neither party’s leadership in Harrisburg is moving to rescind it. The leadership seems confident that, like earlier pay raises, the public will soon forget. Yet, some rank-and-file members have started to believe there may be electoral consequences if the pay hike is not repealed. The interesting political question that emerges is whether the leadership or the rank-and-file members are better in touch with the attitudes of most Pennsylvanians. The September Keystone Poll conducted at Franklin and Marshall College provides some insight into this question.

About eight in ten registered voters in the state are aware of the legislative pay hike, but some groups of voters are more aware than others. Residents of Philadelphia are less likely than voters in other areas of Pennsylvania to be aware of the increase: only about six in ten Philadelphians say they have heard about the pay raise. Respondents of different age groups also differ in their awareness of the pay raise; nearly nine in ten voters over the age of 45 have heard about it. There are no differences in awareness by political party affiliation--equal proportions of Republican, Democratic, and independent voters have heard about the pay increase.

Nearly eight in ten registered voters believe the pay hike was undeserved. Those who are more aware of the pay raise are much more likely than those who are not to believe the pay hike was undeserved: nine in ten voters who knew about the pay raise before the survey felt it was undeserved, versus only six in ten who had not heard about it prior to the survey.

Given that most Pennsylvania voters know about the pay hike and most also believe it is undeserved, is there reason to believe there will be political consequences for legislators who supported it? The survey shows that nearly half of the state’s registered voters will be "less likely" to vote for their legislator, if he voted for the pay hike. This still leaves a sizable number of voters, about four in ten, who say the pay raise will not make a difference in how they vote. Perhaps the leadership is correct to ignore the issue.

But a closer look suggests some uncertainty about how significant the electoral consequences of the pay raise might be. For one, more than five out of ten voters who had heard about the pay hike prior to the survey are "less likely" to support a legislator who voted for the pay increase. Only two in ten of those who had not heard about the pay raise are "less likely" to vote for a legislator who supported it. Regionally, only about three in ten voters in Northeast Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, where knowledge of the increase is much lower, are "less likely" to vote for a legislator who supported the pay increase. Half of the voters in the state’s other regions are "less likely" to support a legislator who voted for the pay increase. But the most discontented group are older voters: more than half of those between 55 and 64 and more than six in ten of those over 65 say they are "less likely" to vote for a legislator who supported the pay raise.

What may be most surprising is that voters from both parties and different political ideologies show similar reactions to the pay increase. The survey found that equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats, and independents were "less likely" to vote for their legislator if he supported the pay increase. Incumbents in both parties might well face hostile voters in their next election.

Returning to the question raised in the first paragraph: are rank-and-file or legislative leaders more in tune with Pennsylvania voters? The evidence seems to lean toward the perspective of the rank-and-file. Citizens are clearly aware of the issue and most believe the pay hike was undeserved. More importantly, as people become more aware of the issue, they are more likely to vote against supporters of the pay increase assuming the pay hike issue continues to be highly visible. The data also show this issue will be more important in some parts of the state than in others. But perhaps the greatest electoral consequences will be wielded by the state’s older voters. They are more likely to vote than the young, and they are also most likely to say they will vote out those who supported the pay increase. Even if the furor over the pay hike begins to decline, one can be pretty certain that candidates who challenge incumbents who voted for the pay increase will make sure that the voters know about that support, particularly older voters.

It is worth considering why the pay raise furor has touched off such a storm of criticism. There are two reasons: the first reason, although it is more anecdotal than systematic, comes from conversations with the interviewing staff in the Center for Opinion Research. The staff regularly reported that the public was not as outraged over the legislature voting for a pay increase as they were outraged over the sheer size of the increase. The second finding is related to Pennsylvanians’ personal finances. A large number of voters say their own finances are worse this year than last, obviously feeling the pinch of rising health care costs, the spike in gasoline prices, and sluggish wage hikes. Voters who feel "worse off" now are more likely to plan to vote against supporters of the pay increase than are voters who feel more financially secure. The animosity toward legislators who voted for the pay increase might well continue until people start feeling better about their own economic vulnerabilities.

G. Terry Madonna is Director of the Keystone Poll and of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Berwood Yost is Head Methodologist of the Poll and Director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College. This analysis is taken from the September 2005 Franklin & Marshall College Keystone Poll, and can used in whole or in part with appropriate attribution.