'Walmart moms': struggling but hopeful … and estranged from Congress

Two groups of 'Walmart moms,' a demographic studied by pollsters, gathered after the State of the Union address. Asked if politicians understand their lives, the answer was a resounding 'no.'

Life isn’t easy for “Walmart moms” – women with children at home who shop at least once a month at the world’s largest retailer. They are struggling to pay the bills and raise their kids. Most are married; some are their family’s sole breadwinner after their husband’s layoff.

They use words like “busy” and even “chaotic” to describe their lives, but through it all, they remain hopeful, two focus groups conducted this week reveal about this key bloc of swing voters.

“Without hope, what do you have?” says Courtney G. from Kansas City, Mo., a mother of two young children who works two part-time jobs. Her husband was laid off, and his severance is running out.

A bipartisan team of pollsters began studying this demographic in 2008, and has been tracking their views since. Walmart moms represent about 15 percent of the electorate; half have household incomes under $50,000 a year, 60 to 70 percent are white, and almost half are college-educated.

They voted for Barack Obama in 2008, swung Republican in the 2010 midterms, and voted narrowly to reelect President Obama last fall. In other words, they mirror the electorate as a whole, and can offer clues to both parties on how to address the issues of the day.

“They have logistical struggles and difficulties,” says Margie Omero of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm. “That’s the prism and the lens through which they view all political issues.”

The focus groups of 10 women each – one in Kansas City, the other in Philadelphia – met on Wednesday to discuss Obama’s State of the Union address the night before. A few women had watched the whole speech, but most had not. After all, they’re busy moms, juggling work, school, kids’ activities, volunteering, and family time.

Videotapes of the two sessions were presented to a group of reporters in Washington on Thursday.

The focus group organizers – Momentum Analysis and the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies – showed the women clips from Obama’s speech and then solicited comments. When asked if Washington politicians understand their lives, the answer was a resounding “no.”

“There’s a certain amount of isolation,” said Maggie L., a homemaker from Kansas City. “Even the good people get sucked in.”

The women described members of Congress as living lives of luxury, while average folks like them are barely getting by.

One woman described her family’s decision to walk away from their mortgage and into a rental to save money. Others spoke about the cost of gas, bread, and health insurance. Eating out is rare.

But life is not joyless: Instead of going out, one said, cooking dinner and watching a movie together at home can be just as fun.

Still, even if these women are, on average, hopeful about their families, they’re less optimistic about Washington. Few see an end to the partisan gridlock anytime soon. But eventually, a few said, there will be a breakthrough.

“Some things have to get done,” said Katie M., a resource manager and mother of three from Philadelphia, listing taxes and guns as areas for potential progress.

Jackie A., a consultant from Philadelphia with one child, predicts Congress will act on immigration, because of the last election. “It’s all about numbers,” she says, perhaps alluding to Republican Mitt Romney’s poor performance among Latino voters.

For many women, issues like immigration and climate change seem a bit disconnected from their daily concerns. Gun violence sparked a lively discussion, but did not produce the kind of ideological divide that shows up in Washington. Many of the gun-owners in the group supported limits or bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

In both groups, the Obama proposal that got the most animated response was universal public preschool. These are women who either have kids in or not far from their preschool years (before and after), and the idea spoke to what they see in their daily lives: that prekindergarten gives kids a leg up academically, but for many families who have no public option, private preschool is unaffordable. One woman’s mother-in-law was paying her four-year-old’s tuition.

So score one for Obama – tapping into a real-life issue. Though quickly, the women began to talk about the practical concerns of public pre-K. How would it be funded? And if it’s not full-day, how do working parents shuttle their kids around?

“What about parents without cars?” asked Colleen W., a homemaker in Kansas City.

Ardely V., also of Kansas City, commented on one of the central conundrums of today’s political debate. “We are all looking for the government to help, but then we say that government has too much control,” she said, suggesting that parents should take more responsibility in their children’s early education. “Everything interrelates.”

And what about the economy, the central political issue of the day? Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour didn’t impress the Walmart moms. That’s good for a high school student making pocket money, many said, but hardly a living wage. Some expressed concern that raising the minimum wage will put pressure on prices.

On the issue of persistent high unemployment, politicians have been talking “jobs” for so long that a lot of the women tune out.

“It’s almost like they have earmuffs on, they can’t quite hear it, they’ve heard it for so long,” says Nicole McCleskey of Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican firm. “There’s been a lot of promises, and they just haven’t seen the results.”

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