LITTLETON, Colo. — With less than two weeks left, the outcome of the presidential election could hinge on a relatively small group of suburban voters in swing states who are genuinely conflicted about and often disenchanted by the choice before them.
They are people such as Mark Bremmer, 50, a freelance designer who is something of a unicorn in the current political climate — an educated, informed and truly undecided voter still waiting for either side to tackle real problems in a way that feels truthful.
“What I want are common-sense, pragmatic approaches to our very real problems, which are being grandstanded and marginalized by the rhetoric used to characterize them,” he said recently while sipping a coffee at a Panera Bread cafe here. “I would like honest dialogue. That’s what I’m looking for.” Bremmer said he’s leaning toward Republican Mitt Romney but remained unhappy with the lack of solutions from either side.
As a group, suburban voters are more affluent, more educated and more female than the population generally. Although anxious about the economy, they survived the economic crash better than their fellow citizens in rural areas, better than blue-collar workers and better than city dwellers.
It’s here in the nation’s swing suburbs that President Obama hopes to build a margin that will help bring him 270 electoral votes. His campaign aides say the grass-roots organizing they initiated in 2008 works especially well among suburban voters, who build off existing PTA, church and playground relationships. And it is here that Romney is counting on disenchantment with the president and the economy to swing voters his way.
The battle for these voters is being fought in places such as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties outside Denver, the suburbs of Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio, and the Orlando area in Florida — and they are likely to, again, shape the election’s outcome in November.
Call them Panera voters, a wide swath of caramel-latte-swilling, hormone-free-chicken-munching, WiFi-surfing suburban voters in a few swing states who have experienced the economic crisis mostly as anxiety rather than panic.
They still eat out, but they don’t eat junk food, and they are looking for a bargain. On any given day, they can be found flipping open their laptops alongside their roasted artichoke turkey paninis and bowls of French onion soup at Panera cafes that have emerged across the country as a cultural and consumer touchstone of the new suburbia.
St. Louis-based Panera Bread is a burgeoning part of the restaurant sector called fast casual, which has boomed during the economic downturn. Like suburbanites themselves, Panera has proved somewhat recession-proof, opening nearly 300 cafes since the end of 2008, including 50 in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Colorado.
The chain has thrived on the idea that despite the recession, plenty of people are still able to pay $8 for the right kind of sandwich in warm, inviting surroundings.
People who study suburban voting patterns say change has made these areas more fluid in their political allegiances. These voters are more highly educated than average and influenced by their communities’ growing diversity, a mixing of people that came with the last economic boom as newcomers from cities pressed farther out into what was once the countryside and, in some areas, were lured from overseas by new jobs.
“These communities are places where you start to see the city gather,” said Robert Lang, a demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “It’s where the highways go from four to six lanes. . . . If there’s a giant movie theater with 14 theaters and cars wrapped around it, that used to be a solid space for Republicans. Not anymore.”
But the shifting politics of such places has come mostly from the mixing of different groups with strongly held political beliefs: There are swing districts, but with increasingly few swing voters. At a Panera, it is common to find Republicans and Democrats sitting at tables near one another, both groups saying they socialize mostly only with those with similar political views.
The challenge for both campaigns, then, is to find their supporters — house by house.
The Obama campaign’s suburban strengthen will come from women. Aides argue that suburban voters, particularly women, are increasingly finding Romney too out of touch on economics and too extreme on social issues.
They mean voters such as Elia Brovarone, 24, who was eating an early dinner at the Littleton Panera on a recent night before clocking in at her job at a nearby Yankee Candle store, one of two jobs she must work to make ends meet.
Brovarone said that her fiance will support Romney and that she, too, believes the Republican has some ideas worth listening to on the economy. But she will vote for Obama, in part because of her strong support for gay and abortion rights.
“I don’t doubt that both candidates want to fix the economy. I have no doubt of that at all,” said Brovarone, who lives in Wheat Ridge in Colorado’s Jefferson County. “So I’d rather pick someone who has views I agree with economically but who then can also stand up for social issues that I believe in, too.”
The Panera voter also suggests a hidden strength for Obama in these communities — passionate support of the Democrats’ health-care overhaul from those who have tangled with the nation’s complex health-care system.
Historically, voters such as these have decided elections. In 2004, President George W. Bush matched or bested Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in many of these key communities, riding the support of suburban voters to a second term.
Four years later, many of the same communities flipped and helped carry Obama to victory in Virginia, Colorado and Florida — and helped expand his margin of victory in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania.
In 2012, to win in places such as Virginia’s Loudoun County, Romney will need to bring voters such as Janet Dewey, who cast her ballot for Obama in 2008, back into the fold.
For years, the Ashburn resident considered herself a middle-of-the-road Republican, a product of her Ohio upbringing, she said over an iced tea at a Panera just off the Dulles Greenway. But instead of veering toward Romney this year, she is more committed to Obama than ever, in part because she believes the health-care law — derided by Republicans — was a sincere effort to bring down health costs.
Her view was formed after watching her insurance costs skyrocket after she left a job at a bank following her husband’s death, pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
“I didn’t know,” she said. “I’ve gone from one job to the next all my adult life, and I never knew what it was like not to have insurance available to me. It’s just not something people tell you.”
Because of a preexisting condition, Dewey was eventually paying more than $1,500 a month for insurance for herself and her young daughter, in a catastrophic plan that did not include dental or vision insurance. Only with her new job this fall as a teacher assistant did her benefits improve and her costs drop, a situation she believes will be ameliorated with the new law.
“I feel we have to have it,” Dewey said of the health-care law. “And if we don’t get him back in office, we’ll lose our chance for that.”
Romney aides say suburban voters, disappointed with Obama, are looking for a leader who will be held accountable for campaign promises. The Obama attack on Romney as out of step rings false, they say, pointing to the Republican’s background working with both parties in Massachusetts when he was governor and his success in these ring communities during the Republican primary.
“They’re trying to paint him as this fire-breathing dragon in those suburban counties, and it’s not working,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director.
Romney aides say Obama is especially vulnerable on the issue of rising federal debt as young suburban parents fear leaving a broke government to their children.
And those fears are easy to find among Panera voters. Mark Warter, 48, owns a small remodeling firm in Loudoun hit hard during the downturn as homeowners delayed revamping their kitchens and bathrooms.
Business is now improving, he said, but he fears rising spending under Obama.
“I just think a lot of times, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican depends on what you think of the general human condition,” he said over lunch with his two daughters. “Do you think that people are going to take help and say, ‘Thank you. Now I’m going to go help myself?’ Or do you think they’re going to get comfortable getting helped?”