Election 2012 challenge: How to win over 'frustrated' Walmart moms

A Republican and a Democratic pollster share their survey data on Walmart moms, 27 percent of registered women voters. A majority voted for Obama in 2008, then swung toward the GOP in 2010.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Neil Newhouse, partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies and Margie Omero, president of Momentum Analysis at the Monitor-hosted breakfast in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

What do Walmart moms want, and who will win their hearts in the 2012 election?

That question lies at the center of this critical bloc of swing voters, according to Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who released a survey Wednesday on this demographic group.

A Walmart mom is a woman with children age 18 or younger living at home who shops at Walmart at least once a month. They represent 27 percent of all registered women voters and 14 percent of the overall electorate. A majority voted for President Obama in 2008, swung toward the Republicans in the 2010 midterms, and are still unhappy with Mr. Obama. But they haven’t given up on him.

“These women are frustrated,” says Mr. Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, speaking at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Wednesday. “They see Wall Street getting bailed out. ... There’s a resentment there that they see a government activism that doesn’t impact them directly. They want their share.”

Specifically, says Ms. Omero, this group is more concerned about paying for college and the price of groceries than they are about how high their taxes are.

“When I listen to the Walmart moms, in these focus groups, they didn’t say, ‘You know what I need, I need fewer environmental regulations for businesses, that will really help me out,’ ” says Omero. “They said, ‘I would like college affordability, and milk for everybody, and affordable housing, pay my electric bill.’ These very tangible things.”

How these concerns play into each party’s election strategy is a different question. Newhouse is the pollster for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, though he declined to speak for the campaign. Still, when asked about Mr. Romney’s poll numbers – which seem stuck in the mid-20s among GOP voters – Newhouse asserted that “this campaign has just begun, and we’ve got a long ways to go.”

For now, when asked to frame a broader Republican narrative for the election, Newhouse zeroed in on personal responsibility.

“It’s probably that if we get government out of the way and out of our lives, that at least to a greater extent, it will enable these families to make ends meet and to do better on a personal basis,” Newhouse said. “It will help in terms of job growth, reducing the deficit. It’s a more complicated message when you’ve got 52 percent of these voters who say they expect government to play more of a role.”

The personal-responsibility message may seem at odds with a demographic that is looking for more help from the government, but the Walmart-sponsored poll found that Walmart moms are more likely to blame themselves than any other group or person for the state of the economy.

Twenty-five percent of Walmart moms blame “people who took on too much credit and live beyond their means,” the No. 1 answer. In second place was former President George W. Bush, with 22 percent. Third was “Wall Street banks and big corporations,” at 15 percent. Obama came in fourth with 7 percent.

Among the public at large, big banks and corporations came in for more blame (21 percent) than Mr. Bush (15 percent), the pollsters said.

But no matter where the blame is placed, there’s no doubt the nation is in an extended sour mood.

“This is the longest period of sustained pessimism we’ve had in this country since we started doing polling,” Newhouse says. “We’ve had, I think this is 93 or 94 straight months where a plurality of Americans believe the country is off on the wrong track.”

Newhouse notes that Obama’s negative job approval is noteworthy for its intensity. And even if GOP voters have not coalesced around a challenger to Obama, Newhouse isn’t worried about getting voters to turn out next year.

“When people are upset, they’re going to vote,” he says.

And for now, says Omero, Walmart moms in particular have yet to engage in the 2012 campaign. They are focused on matters closer to home. For Obama and the Democrats, that presents a challenge. Even though Obama won the “Walmart mom” vote in 2008, it’s not clear the Democrats can get them again.

“They’ll definitely need more ‘touches’ from a campaign to be engaged at the same level of more regular voters,” Omero says.

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