Weekly Wal-Mart shoppers are midterms' NASCAR dads

In 2004, it was NASCAR dads. Before that, soccer moms.
In the upcoming elections, pollster John Zogby says, the parties need look no further than the biggest retail phenomenon in the world — Wal-Mart — for this year’s elusive group of swing voters.

In 2004, it was NASCAR dads. Before that, soccer moms.

In the upcoming elections, pollster John Zogby says, the parties need look no further than the biggest retail phenomenon in the world — Wal-Mart — for this year’s elusive group of swing voters.

Zogby said he has found a direct correlation between how often Wal-Mart customers shop there and how reliably conservative they are. While this group voted overwhelmingly Republican in 2004, it is less entrenched than other conservative groups, and Zogby’s numbers indicate it is wavering.

“Wal-Mart is so much more than retail,” Zogby said. “It’s a religion out there.”

According to a study by Scarborough Research, Wal-Mart shoppers are, on the whole, evenly divided between Republican and Democrat. Of those who had shopped at Wal-Mart in the past three months — three-fourths of the sample — 32 percent identified themselves as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats.

But as the shopping trips to Wal-Mart become more frequent, Zogby said, it’s a different story. The more they shop there, the more conservative they’ve tended to be.

Today those weekly Wal-Mart shoppers are giving Bush a 35 percent approval rating and rate Republicans in Congress 27 percent positive, and 20 percentage points more of them prefer a Democratic-led Congress than prefer a Republican one.

They also rate Democrats better on jobs and the economy, healthcare and taxes. But they still give Republicans higher marks for family values and fighting terrorism, two supposed linchpins of Bush’s reelection.

Zogby, who is researching the topic for a book he’s writing, said that weekly Wal-Mart shoppers represent about one-fifth of the population and that people who never shop there represent about a quarter, making both groups significant parts of the electorate.

He said that he’s still surmising what issues sway weekly Wal-Mart shoppers the most but that he believes the war in Iraq and the economy are likely candidates.

The household income of a “regular” Wal-Mart shopper averages about $35,000 and 57 percent of Southerners shop there regularly, according to a Pew Research Center study. Comparatively, only 24 percent of Northeasterners shop regularly at Wal-Mart, though nearly half stop in “once in a while.”

In 2004, NASCAR dads were thought to be a crucial swing vote, although many experts came to express doubt about the theory. In previous elections, it was soccer moms. NASCAR dads were blue-collar white men from rural areas of the South; soccer moms were moderate mothers concerned about healthcare, education and taxes.

There is significant overlap between weekly Wal-Mart shoppers and a group Pew has defined as “pro-government conservatives.” According to a study issued after the 2004 election, 1 out of 10 voters falls into this group, which gave Bush 15 percent of his base in 2004. Slightly more than half are Republicans, while another 35 percent identify themselves as Republican-leaning independents.

These Wal-Mart shoppers, for the most part, are conservative on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion and tend to be rural and religious. But they also believe in social programs for the poor, are often poor themselves, don’t like Bush’s tax cuts and are less supportive of preemptive force and the war in Iraq than other conservatives.

While they voted with Republicans on social issues and national security in the past, they are more susceptible to drifting toward the Democratic column than other conservatives, said Pew Director of Survey Research Scott Keeter.

“We do think that this is a group that potentially is having anxieties economically right now, about healthcare and the like, and while they may be cross-pressured on social issues … right now the economic issues may be more important to them,” Keeter said. “And it could be that the war in Iraq is also a source of anxiety because there is at least some evidence that more of the direct impact of people fighting in the war is being felt by people in more rural areas.”

According to the Pew study, despite voting 5-1 for Bush in 2004, 38 percent of pro-government conservatives had a positive view of the Democratic Party and more than half like both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Zogby said the weekly Wal-Mart shoppers and the Pew group are indeed similar.

“‘Pro-government conservatives’ is very true,” Zogby said. “There are all sorts of clusters. But we know where many of them are on a weeknight in America.”

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was not considered a political man, but the backlash against Wal-Mart’s wage levels and benefits, mostly from the left, has made the world’s biggest retailer an increasingly hot-button political topic.

Another Zogby poll from late 2005, commissioned by an anti-Wal-Mart website, said more than half of the country thinks Wal-Mart is “bad for America.” A Pew poll, released two weeks later, put that number at 24 percent.

Many of Wal-Mart’s battles are being fought on the local level, with communities deciding whether to allow the retail giant to build stores in their neighborhoods. But labor, healthcare and other issues have led the company to increase its national political presence considerably over the past decade.

Wal-Mart’s contributions to national political candidates have increased steadily in recent years, and Republicans are on the receiving end of most of the giving. In the 2004 election cycle, Wal-Mart’s PAC gave more than $1.3 million to Republicans and $370,000 to Democrats. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) received the most, with $17,500, and dozens got $10,000 or more.

Its PAC and employees gave more than $2 million overall to federal candidates and parties, making it the second-biggest miscellaneous business benefactor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This cycle it ranks fifth, with more than a half-million dollars in contributions.

Lee Culpepper, Wal-Mart’s lead lobbyist in Washington, said Republicans’ more favorable attitude toward business and the fact that there are simply more of them in Congress have made them more attractive for PAC contributions.

“When you put those two factors together, it’s understandable why you’d have more support for Republicans than Democrats,” Culpepper said.

But he said that’s changing as the PAC grows. The split is now 71-29 percent in favor of Republicans, down from 93-7 during the 1998 cycle, when it gave just $135,000.

“Our PAC … has been increasing support to Democratic candidates who support business,” he said.