From time to time, someone comes up with a catchy term for some subgroup of swing voters. President Nixon targeted the Silent Majority. Later there were Reagan Democrats. More recently, Soccer Moms became a household term.
Some of the terms were less meaningful. One pollster pushed NASCAR Dads. This made me laugh, because to me, rural or exurban, Southern, Southwest or Midwest, working- and lower-middle-class white guys are generally called the Republican base, not swing voters. Another pollster pushed Office Park Dads, but it was never clear to me who they were.
But a new one that makes considerable sense is Walmart Moms, a term for working- and middle-class women with kids at home who shop at Walmart. Last week, I had the opportunity to watch with a half-dozen other journalists, via uplink, three back-to-back 10-person focus groups of Walmart Moms from the Philadelphia, St. Louis and Denver areas.
The almost five hours of focus groups was sponsored by Walmart and overseen by Democratic pollster Margie Omero of Momentum Analysis and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies. The participants were women who had shopped at Walmart in the last month and had children in the home younger than 18.
The first thing that jumped out of the focus group sessions was how out of sync the political debate in Washington and on the cable food-fight shows is from the daily lives of these women. In various ways, we heard each one of them talk about the struggles they face in putting food on the table, clothes on their kids' backs and a roof over their heads. One woman talked about making lunch for her son because they couldn't afford a school lunch. I lost count of the number who, with their kids, had moved into the homes of their parents, in some cases because they had lost their homes.
There were many wives who hadn't worked outside the home before but were going to work because their husbands had lost their jobs. Others had been the secondary breadwinner but were now the primary one because their husband's income had dropped so much.
Every day is a struggle for these families and they feel that elected officials in both parties have abandoned them. Each group was asked, "If elected officials in Washington understood your lives, what would they do differently?" The most remarkable response was from a Denver schoolteacher who said, "I can't imagine that they could ever understand my life."
Someone else wished that elected officials could visit them in a fashion similar to the TV show "Undercover Boss" and see what life is like for working families who weren't in the best financial shape before the economic downturn and are now trying to keep their mouths above water.
They think both parties are on another planet, and they view their elected officials as unknowing, uncaring and totally disengaged from the lives of those who elect them. When asked how they decide who to vote for, one mom volunteered that she likes to take her kids to the polls on Election Day, and if she can't decide who to vote for, she just lets her kids pull a lever.
Another talked about how much she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom but instead has an hour commute each day. These are not people who are glued to watching politicians and pundits shout at each other each night on television. They are coming home after a hard day on the job and are cooking, cleaning, helping their children with homework, and working on a checkbook, worried about how they will make it another month. Frugality is not a virtue to these women; it is the only way they survive.
Issues like the deficit, the extension of tax cuts, immigration, abortion and even health care, which dominated Washington for over a year, were hardly mentioned.
What was on all their minds was the daily fight for survival. A common sentiment was that while the banks were being bailed out, these families were offered nothing; nobody in government was doing anything to help them.
Two separate participants in St. Louis and Denver wondered whether our country was going the way of past great civilizations that ran aground. This echoes polling data from the recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey that found that about two-thirds of Americans believe our country is in a state of decline and do not feel confident that life for our children's generation will be better than it has been for us.
One woman said that when the subject of vacations comes up, "if it's a choice of Disney World or camping, we're going camping."
One interesting aspect of this was that with a few notable exceptions, there wasn't much negative talk of President Obama. Instead of anger, there was more disappointment or even sympathy. Nobody argued that he had been successful, but there were numerous comments regarding how bad things were when he took over, how bad things still are, and how Obama just was not able to make things better.
Watching this group, one got the impression that for these struggling families, giving up on him simply meant giving up; that if they lose hope that he will succeed, they are giving up on their own survival. They do not see progress, but they are not ready to just give up and say their lives are doomed.