The State of the Wal-Mart Moms

February 15, 2013

Don Emmert/AFP

About five years ago, pollsters identified a crucial bloc of swing voters they called the “Wal-Mart Moms.” These are women with children at home 18 or younger, and they shop at a Wal-Mart at least once a month.

They are also women who know what it is like to stretch a budget and juggle the demands of a family. For them, stress is a normal state these days.

Wal-Mart Moms don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics, but when they do, it is on a very pragmatic level: Which candidate or party is going to make life better for my family?  In the past few election cycles, they have been a bellwether group. Wal-Mart Moms –estimated to constitute between 14 percent and 17 percent of the electorate — voted for Obama in 2008, swung to the Republicans in 2010, and returned to Obama last year.

Wal-Mart has been tracking their attitudes, using research by a Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies, and a Democratic one, Momentum Analysis. Recently, I spent several hours watching videos of two groups of Wal-Mart Moms — 10 in Kansas City, Mo., and another 10 in Philadelphia — discuss President Obama’s State of the Union address. About half of them had voted for Obama in the last election; the other half had been Romney supporters. Their political leanings ranged from somewhat liberal to somewhat conservative, with most describing themselves as moderates.

Not many of them had actually watched the speech. But when they were shown video excerpts the following day, they had a lot to say.

The core message of the speech — jobs and the economy — drew a skeptical reaction. They had trouble pointing to anything concrete that would actually produce jobs that paid well and offered decent benefits. As Paula, a 35-year-old homemaker and mother of three who voted for Obama, put it: “People need the jobs they had four or six years ago, and they’re gone.”

Nicole McClesky, who conducted the Kansas City focus group, said that is because politicians make so many promises to revive the economy that these women “are wearing earmuffs. They can’t hear it any more, because they’ve heard it for so long.”

Nor were they enthusiastic about Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. That is not enough to live on, a number of them said. “It’s not enough, only $360 a week, and that’s before taxes. My unemployment is more than that,” said Diane, recently laid off from her job as a manager in a bulk mail company. And they worried about other effects. Courtney, a 34-year-old dance instructor whose husband’s severance pay is about to run out, was one of several who worried that employers would lay people off because they were unable to afford it.

One Obama proposal that did excite them was the idea of universal public preschool. Several recalled how important it had been to their own children, and they believe the research that says early education pays off in the long run.

They were also generally supportive of tighter gun-control laws, though many said the problem of gun violence is a complicated one, not likely to be solved by restrictions. Several dismissed scare talk from the right that the government’s real intent is to confiscate everyone’s firearms. Katie, a Republican-leaning mother of three, said of gun control: “It’s a common-sense issue at this point.”

Two other issues — climate change and immigration overhaul — did not seem to resonate much with them. “Of course, something needs to be done about it,” a woman named Cheryl said of global warming. But she added that it was “not as high a priority.”

Considering how disconnected many of these women felt from the fighting that goes on in Washington, they were surprisingly hopeful that politicians will ultimately figure out a way to work together across party lines.

“At some point, it feels like it’s going to have to bottom out,” said Christine,  a clerk-typist and mother of a 2-year-old. “People are going to realize that something serious needs to be done.”

 

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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Mary C. Curtis | February 15, 2013