President Obama and Mitt Romney can talk all they like, but the voters who will decide this year's presidential election aren't listening yet. That's because prototypical key swing voters this year are far more concerned with guiding their families through the slow and grinding economic recovery than they are with presidential politics.
Those voters most likely to remain undecided about their presidential preference are taking on a distinct profile, according to pollsters on both sides of the aisle: They're suburban white women, between the ages of 35 and 55, who probably haven't attained a college degree and who have kids under the age of 18. They very likely voted Democratic in 2008, then turned around and voted Republican two years later — if they voted at all. And polling and consumer research shows their focus is on their own household rather than national events.
"The economy for them are those personal things they're dealing with every day," said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster. "What they think about is the daily impact — paying for gas, their household budget, putting food on the table."
Bratty and Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster, have extensively surveyed a group they call "Wal-Mart moms," part of a clever campaign by the retail giant to associate itself with this year's ultimate swing voter, similar to the oft-cited NASCAR dads of 2004, the soccer moms of 1996 or the hockey moms of 2008. The retailer has avoided getting too specific in terms of race, educational attainment, or geographic area — it defines the women as mothers who are registered to vote, have at least one child under 18 at home, and have shopped at Wal-Mart in the last month — but the group tracks closely with suburban, noncollege whites.
"Across socio-economic statuses, these moms are pressed for time and just trying to make it through the day," Omero says. That "makes them put politics and concern about politics on the back burner."
Consumer data backs up that sentiment. Wal-Mart moms are three times more likely than the average American to be interested in family or animated movies, dogs, and products like ketchup, frozen vegetables, and air fresheners, according to data collected by the consumer research firm Lotame. That indicates the women are the ones shopping for their families and are interested in saving pennies wherever they can. They are more interested in information on cruises, too, suggesting they're eager to get away when their economic situation improves.
But those situations haven't turned around yet, and the stories these Wal-Mart moms tell can be heart-wrenching. Omero recalled a mother who said she would tell her children Santa was poor this year, and another who said her children were collecting cans to learn about financial independence.
With such weighty economic situations on swing mothers' minds, both pollsters say neither Obama's nor Romney's campaign has truly reached these voters yet. And both candidates face challenges in relating: Obama contends with a sense of disappointment that his first term hasn't sped the economic recovery as much as they expected or that the recovery is leaving them behind. Romney contends with a growing sense that his business experience demonstrates he would favor the wealthy over the middle class.
It's little wonder that each side's early ad campaigns are playing to exactly those fears: Republican outside groups are blasting Obama for the slow recovery. That fits with what Wal-Mart moms are seeing in their own household budgets, even if they still blame George W. Bush for the economic downturn. Democratic groups and Obama's campaign have spent the bulk of their time attacking Romney as the outsourcer-in-chief; although these swing voters are less likely to have seen those advertisements than the rest of the population, "you could see some of that perhaps coming through a little bit," Bratty said.
That leaves these voters pulled in two very different directions. "One train of thought is, 'Reelect [Obama], give him more time to allow his policies to work," Bratty says of the swing voters she studies, "versus, 'We don't know Mitt Romney really well, but we do know him as a successful businessman. Obama's had his time, and it hasn't gotten better.' "
It doesn't help that the candidates themselves reinforce initial impressions. Romney has made unfortunately out-of-touch comments about his friends who own NASCAR and NFL teams. And even as Obama urges Congress to allow tax breaks for the wealthy to expire, he lumps himself into that category — "I don't believe that giving someone like me a $250,000 tax cut is more valuable to our future than hiring transformative teachers or providing financial aid to the children of a middle-class family," Obama said last month at a community college in Cleveland.
To counter those impressions, pollsters say these swing voters will look to two specific surrogates: the candidates' wives. Wal-Mart moms view first lady Michelle Obama in an overwhelmingly positive light. Voters in recent focus groups have pointed to her healthy-living initiatives, and they see her as a role model. They know less about Ann Romney, but her potential to humanize her husband and her own struggle overcoming disease could be a powerful tool the campaign can use. "Having Ann Romney speak to these moms is going to be important for the Romney campaign," Omero said.
But having the conversation these voters want to hear, and having it at the right time, is most important. The "Wal-Mart mom" types are simply not following the day-to-day trench warfare of the presidential campaign. Instead, they want to hear specific proposals on gas prices, education and health care policy — proposals the risk-averse campaigns either haven't made public or haven't communicated effectively. The campaign that's best able to reach these struggling suburban mothers at precisely the moment they tune in to the pending election will have a decided leg up in November.