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In Wal-Mart moms’ bleak perspective on campaign, glimmer of hope

Modes of thought

In focus groups, Wal-Mart moms were downright brutal toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But they showed surprising optimism about the economy. 

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Ask a bunch of moms about their emotions around the 2016 presidential campaign, and a torrent of negativity comes flooding out.

Start with “frustrated,” “divided,” and “worried.” Then the longer explanations emerge.

“There’s a lot of name-calling rather than getting to the point,” says Donna G., a clinic manager in Columbus, Ohio.

“I don’t see either option … as being good for America or good for our families,” says Stephanie C., a customer service rep in Phoenix, Arizona.

“No matter who wins, the country will be so divided it will be hard to get anything done,” says Connie M. of Phoenix, a caregiver for her parents.

These are all “Wal-Mart moms” – regular Wal-Mart shoppers with children at home, who make up between 14 percent and 17 percent of the electorate. Since 2008, they have voted with the winning party in every election except 2014, making them a bellwether voting bloc.

Their comments, made in focus groups Tuesday evening in Columbus and Phoenix, provide insight into voter choices in November.

But all was not gloom and doom for the 20 women, who varied in age, race, income, and education level. Most extraordinary, perhaps, was their take on the economy – overall, not bad.

“It’s the economy, stupid” is a campaign staple, and this year is no exception. Republican Donald Trump has zeroed in on the anxieties of working-class white voters, targeting immigration and international trade as culprits. Democrat Hillary Clinton has pledged to continue the economic recovery that started under President Obama but has left some workers feeling insecure amid stagnant wages and slow economic growth.

When each focus group was asked to weigh in on the economy, nearly everyone reported that they were at least holding their own, if not getting ahead.

“In some aspects, I feel like we’re moving forward with the economy,” said Africa C., a business operations manager in Phoenix. “I’m looking at the price of gas, for example. We’re hitting bottom.”

Representatives of the focus groups’ sponsors – Democratic pollsters Penn Schoen Berland and Republican pollsters Public Opinion Strategies – pointed out to reporters watching the sessions remotely via videolink that both Phoenix and Columbus are strong markets. Still, it’s rare to get a group of Wal-Mart moms together, and not hear an outpouring of concern about personal finances.

Whether this is good news for Mrs. Clinton – who is running, in some ways, for a third Obama term – is a matter of conjecture. Focus groups are not scientific, though they do add substance to the dry numbers of opinion polls. Current measures of whether the nation is heading in the “right direction” are dismal – only 28 percent of Americans say “yes,” to 65 percent “no.”

Usually, such a big “wrong track” number would refer to a bad economy. But in their questionnaires, the Wal-Mart moms mostly listed other issues as their top concerns, such as terrorism, racism, and health care.  

Such a big “wrong track” number would also normally spell trouble for the party in power. But 2016 is no normal cycle, with the two major-party candidates held in such low regard by the public. The Wal-Mart moms are no exception, and in the two focus groups, the views of Clinton and Mr. Trump were downright brutal.

When asked for single words to describe candidate Clinton, “cold,” liar,” and “untrustworthy” were typical responses.

“I think she’s emotionless, especially compared to Trump,” said Julie B., an office administrator in Columbus. “People have been tearing her apart forever,” and so “she has an extremely hard shell around her.”

“That’s a strength,” another woman responded.

The women were also asked who they would rather have over for a cookout; most said Trump. “Personally he’d be more fun than Hillary in her suit sitting next to me,” said Donna G. of Columbus.

When asked to describe a President Hillary Clinton, some assessments improved. “Confident,” said one woman. “Experienced,” said others. Others noted she would be the first woman president. But when the Columbus group was asked if the “woman thing” made a difference, a chorus came back: no.

One woman begged to differ. “I have two daughters,” said Dana W., a food service worker in Columbus. “It would be a big step for women, but that’s the only positive about Hillary.”

Trump didn’t fare any better with the Wal-Mart moms. One-word descriptors were “joke,” “loud,” and “combative.”

“I have a feeling the whole world would be laughing at us” if Trump were elected, said Julie B. of Columbus.

Even women who were leaning toward Trump had serious reservations.

“If Hillary was elected, we’d get more terrorism, but I think Trump would get us into World War III,” said Stephanie C. of Phoenix.

When asked who they thought would win the election (not whom they personally support), nearly all the women in both groups said Clinton – but they didn’t rule out the possibility that Trump could be elected. As for their personal choices, the women were selected for the focus groups because they were either undecided or had not fully decided on whom to support.

With three months to go before Election Day, seven of the 20 women said they were leaning toward Clinton, five leaned toward Trump, and eight were undecided. Ohio, in particular, is a major battleground; Arizona is a red state that the Clinton campaign sees as increasingly winnable.

Other aspects of the campaign, aside from the candidates, came in for harsh criticism – starting with the news media.

“It seems like the focus is just on the individuals and how crazy things can get, rather than … what are the important things that we should be dealing with or talking about,” said Gidget B., a customer service manager in Columbus.

The kerfuffle over Trump’s comment Tuesday on “Second Amendment people” is the latest example. The episode had just taken place when the focus groups convened, and it was impossible to ignore. When the moderator in Columbus brought it up, one woman said, “He could be more well-spoken,” alluding to the ambiguity of Trump’s statement.

Julie B. offered her interpretation: “Sounds like he’s saying basically, take her out.”

Some women blamed social media for sowing discord among voters. It used to be that, in polite company, one should avoid discussing religion and politics, said one woman. Now, with social media, it’s all out in the open.

“It’s actually an insight into people’s minds,” said Ivania L., a radiation safety officer in Columbus. But “it also leaves a little bad taste in your mouth…. I never expected how ugly it’s getting. People are losing friends and acquaintances. You’re just being de-friended completely.”

Social media has also provided a platform for racism, said Dana W. of Columbus. “I’ve seen a lot of what Donald Trump has brought to the table,” she said.  

Some women wished out loud that the third-party candidates got more media coverage, and a few said they were considering voting for the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson. But they also acknowledged the reality that the Democrats and Republicans dominate American politics, and that the choice is between Clinton and Trump.

Said one woman: “I wish we could start all over.”

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