The downbeat world of the "Walmart moms"
February 14, 2013By Dick Polman
President Obama may sincerely believe that "the state of the union is strong," but the mood in the aisles of Walmart is apparently far less sanguine.
Or so I conclude, after spending 90 minutes last night behind a two-way mirror, watching 10 "Walmart moms" sit around a conference table and lament the national condition. Granted, a focus group is by definition unscientific, and this particular focus group was...how shall I put this charitably...a tad clueless about certain policies. (Obamacare, said ill-informed Sibohan, is "socialized medicine. "You'll be waiting five years for a hysterectomy!"). But all 10 of them voted in 2012, their votes count the same as everyone else's votes, and research shows that Walmart moms - women with kids at home who shop at the chain at least once a month - have been a key swing voting group in the last several elections.
Walmart moms are being closely tracked by Public Opinion Strategies, a Washington Republican polling firm, and a Democratic counterpart, Momentum Analysis. They coined the term. They've also discovered that Walmart moms (14 percent of all voters) swung to Obama in 2008, to the Republican congressional candidates in the 2010 midterms, then back to Obama last November. And with funding from Walmart - which wants to keep tabs on what their regular customers think - the pollsters continue to run focus groups and surveys nationwide.
Which brings us to last night's gathering, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Body language told the tale. Sagging posture, arms folded, grim visages....they looked as if they were reluctantly attending a wake.
In 2012 they'd voted 6-4 for Obama, but clearly they did so with little expectation that 2013 would usher in nirvana. Their main beef is not with Obama, but with the chronic dysfunction in Washington:
"It doesn't seem like he has any help from Republicans," said Diane, manager of a company that handles bulk mail. "Every time he wants to do something, they shoot him down. I don't know what he'll be able to do, with that group....It's encouraging, his (State of the Union) speech, and all that? But when you see the vice president standing up and clapping, that Republican dude (John Boehner) is just sitting there. Some of them in the audience were up and clapping, and the rest weren't doing that. That's why nothing is gonna happen."
"I'd like to see (Obama) and Congress agree on anything," said Robin, a hospital administrative assistant. "Some kind of change somewhere....It takes more than one person to make a change. There's so much underhanded scheming, nothing gets done."
"There's like no hope," said Patty, a home healthcare worker. "I don't believe a word any of them say. I don't think they want to work together....When it's a Republican in there (the White House), the Democrats in Congress won't (cooperate). I don't understand why they all play that game....Obama is president. Give him a chance to see his plans through."
This was apparently a bipartisan sentiment; Patty, who wanted Republicans to give Obama a chance, is an independent who voted for Mitt Romney. But a chance to do what? These women are so focused on their financial anxieties (Cheryl, who works for a cleaning service: "You need toilet paper. You need laundry detergent") that they can't abide Obama's grand policy ambitions.
Granted, those financial anxieties are very real; most of these women worry about their jobs, or they lost jobs during the recession, or they know people who lost jobs. Christen, a preschool teacher, said, "My mom has been laid off after having a job her whole life. She can't find work, and she doesn't have a cushion to fall back on." But their downbeat economic mood suggests that Obama will have a tough time drumming up grassroots support for other priorities - such as climate change legislation and path-to-citizenship immigration reform.
There was bipartisan hostility to both agenda items. Cheryl, who voted for Obama, said of climate change, "There are higher priorities." Katie, a resource manager who voted for Romney, said, "You can't shut off this industrial revolution that we've created." And with respect to immigration reform (an issue that's actually drawing some Republican support), some of the Obama voters were particularly dismissive. Diane, who's currently unemployed, said of undocumented immigrants, "I've worked with a lot of them. What they say is, 'You Americans are lazy, so we're going to take your jobs.'"
(Really? Immigrants actually say that to Diane? In any event, she's wrong that they Take Our Jobs.)
But Obama may have some leverage on the gun violence issue. Even Republicans in the room said that Obama and Congress should tighten access to weapons. Katie, the most vocal of the Romney voters, went even further: "Look at London - they don't have guns, and they don't have gun violence. So, get rid of guns. I don't think anyone should have the right to carry one."
And, if these women are barometers of broader opinion (Walmart moms are 27 percent of all women), Obama probably need not worry about a resurgent Republican party - because, when asked about the GOP, they couldn't name a single resonant Republican message. Except to say that the GOP believes in "cutting services to people who are already struggling" (according to Jackie, a consultant), or that the GOP wants to protect rich people from higher taxes (according to Cheryl). Beyond that, zip.
So are these folks hopeful about the future, or what? In the American tradition, they at least aspire to hope. Christen spoke for many when she said of the economy, "It can't get any worse. It can only go up."
Diane put it differently: "I'm hopeful. But every time I hope, s--- happens."
We get it, Diane.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1