Lessons from Wal-Mart moms

What defines America more than “mom and apple pie”? Political wisdom would say nothing. Politicians of all stripes routinely invoke these touchstones of our landscape. And while apple pies can’t vote, moms certainly do. Yet as a group of voters they have been the focus of surprisingly scant research. Until now.

In a bipartisan effort, our polling firms joined forces to listen to hundreds of moms talk about their lives and views through a series of focus groups to inform a national survey comparing these moms to voters overall. This group, which we call “Wal-Mart moms,” has been a pivotal swing group in past elections; they voted for President Obama in 2008 and then voted Republican in 2010.

Wal-Mart Moms are women voters with children ages 18 or younger living at home, and who have shopped at Wal-Mart in the last month. They represent roughly 14 percent to 16 percent of the national electorate. And they are a diverse group in their education, household income, race and ethnicity.

We found these Wal-Mart moms to be keenly concerned about their family’s finances. They are far more likely to be worried about healthcare costs, a job loss or cutback, or a skipped vacation. They are also more likely to engage in cost-cutting measures, such as couponing or cutting back on clothes, entertainment or restaurants. In our focus groups, moms spoke in great detail about teaching their children to be self-sufficient.

But more attention to one’s personal finances doesn’t necessarily translate into more attention to the national economic debate, especially when compared to voters overall. By 2 to 1, Wal-Mart moms are more likely to say they are concerned about their own household income and budget than about the nation’s economy. Voters overall are more evenly divided (42 percent nation’s economy, 49 percent household budget). And Wal-Mart moms are less likely to be paying attention to the latest developments, such as the Occupy Wall Street protests around the country.

Nearly half say they’ve heard not much or have heard nothing about the protests, compared to a third of voters overall.

When it comes to politics, these moms are split evenly between self-identified Republicans, Independents and Democrats. And, as they look ahead to 2012 right now they appear to lean Republican but still give Obama some support. More than 6 in 10 say “a new person” should be given a chance to be president, yet a similar number say they are still hopeful for Obama. They want to see a larger role for government “to solve problems,” but also want a Republican-controlled Congress. By November 2012, these moms could change again.

And while politicians in Washington sometimes regress to finger-pointing, when thinking about the economic crisis, Wal-Mart moms point the finger at themselves. In our focus groups, we asked moms who they blamed for the economic crisis, and many said “all of us” for spending more than we truly had. The survey confirmed this: More Wal-Mart moms blamed “people who took on too much credit” than blamed former President George W. Bush, Wall Street, Congress or Obama.

With the 2012 election now a year away, what does this all mean for candidates running for office? Candidates trying to woo Wal-Mart moms should remember they are less engaged in politics and will be harder to reach than voters overall. These moms also don’t care about the political debate as much as how it actually affects them and their households personally.

Lastly, listening to moms is the most important step to understanding them. Politicians might be surprised to learn there’s a lot more to moms than apple pie.

Newhouse is partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. Bratty is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. Omero is president and founder of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm.