Watch Out For ‘Walmart Moms’

They hold the key to the 2012 election—according to Walmart

You’ve heard of Soccer Moms and Nascar Dads, but how about Walmart Moms?

If you haven’t, you will, judging from the push by two DC polling firms to get this “key swing group” of 2012 voters into the press. It should surprise no one that the firms responsible for pushing the story, Public Opinion Strategies and Momentum Analysis, are doing the work on behalf of, um, Walmart.

Last Wednesday, the firms conducted three focus groups—in Iowa, Florida, and New Hampshire—each with ten of these pivotal Walmart moms. Since then, the Walmart moms and the findings of these small focus groups have been making news.

Kathie Obradovich, a political columnist at the Des Moines Register, wrote her Sunday column on the subject under the headline “Walmart moms may be pivotal.” The group is comprised of mothers between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four, whom she characterizes as the sort of women who are “clipping coupons, giving up cable TV and shopping the clearance racks to make ends meet.”

She writes:

These are the so-called Walmart moms, a demographic group first identified during the 2008 elections by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican-leaning research firm. The firm has continued to track this group through the 2010 elections and has joined with Democratic-leaning Momentum Analysis to conduct research and focus groups in key states leading into 2012. Reporters were allowed to observe the focus groups from behind one-way glass, but could not publish their full names.

St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith wrote a similar story about the group that ran in the Miami Herlad Monday under this ominous headline: “For Obama campaign, a dire message from Florida’s ‘Walmart Moms.’” Based on his observations from behind the one-way glass in Florida, America’s Walmart Moms share a fate of:

No more vacations, finding as much overtime as possible, forgoing movies and dinners out, juggling credit cards, gathering Sunday newspapers for their coupons, cutting cable service and sometimes giving blood for a few extra bucks. It means praying, literally in some cases, your refrigerator or car doesn’t break down, or God forbid, you incur serious medical bills.

Reuters’s John Whitesides had a story about the “much coveted working-class female voters” last week, too. He watched the ninety-minute focus groups by video with other journalists in Washington.

The Orlando Sentinel, WKMG Orlando, and the Green Bay Gazette were among other outlets that reported on this powerful new constituency, invariably with a sense that these reports from behind the one-way glass are bringing privileged, vital information to anyone interested in handicapping the 2012 race.

Oddly, only one of these stories—Chuck Raasch’s column in the Green Bay Gazette—reported the relationship between Walmart and the polling firms, an oversight that is stunning given the ease with which one can learn about the partnership.

Look no further than Walmart’s community website. It should give pause to reporters—and anyone else—who would take these stories too seriously.

There you can find, along with links to Walmart inventory and the personal blogs of twenty-five real, live Walmart Moms, a page about the politics of these good American moms:

Walmart Moms* are kind of a big deal. As it turns out, they represent at least 15% of the population. They also tend to be swing voters, which means it’s not easy to predict what they’ll do on Election Day. With those kinds of numbers and that much potential to go either way, they’ll play a huge role in the 2010 elections.

You don’t say. The page includes the important footnote that has gone unmentioned, or unnoticed, by every intrepid journalist who has tackled this important electoral development save Raasch:

*Walmart Moms are women who have children under the age of 18, and who have shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month.

There are lots of reasons to shrug off pollster-pushed stories about these swing voter-groups-of-the moment, which the Atlantic Wire’s John Hudson, piggybacking on analysis by Nate Silver, did here in response to last week’s focus groups:

The only thing more frustrating than the opaqueness of the response data, which consists of gut feelings from three 10-person focus groups who spoke for 90 minutes—that is, 30 people speaking for four-and-a-half hours, or slightly longer than the NBC’s Today show—is the hard reality that determining elections by catchphrase demographics is notoriously difficult. As The New York Times’s Nate Silver explained in March:

The impact that demographics have on voting behavior is a lot more fluid than you might think from all the talk of “soccer moms” and “Nascar dads.” … The truth is that none of us is just one thing. We are all members of any number of different demographic categories — and the voting tendencies associated with those categories often point in different, or even conflicting, directions. For instance, I am a non-unionized white male who makes an above-average income, all things that predict Republican voting — but I’m also college-educated, relatively young, and live in the urban Northeast, all things that predict Democratic voting. To the extent that my political interests are dictated by my demographics, I have a lot of competing priorities.

Shame on Walmart, if that’s possible at this point, for this PR stunt. But shame on the press for playing along, unwittingly or not. Surely there are more meaningful ways for pollsters to segment the population—and for the media to report on it—than by their shopping habits.

Despite all this, the stories and responses that were reported from these focus groups were genuine and in many cases, quite touching. Whitesides’ Reuters piece reads like it has been ripped from the We are the 99% Tumblr:

“It is frustrating,” said Sarah, mother of a 3-year-old girl. “The banks got bailed out, and they’re the ones who started all this. They get bailed out, and they’re all fine and dandy. We’re the little people, and you just want a little bit of a break and we just can’t get it. There is never anything in this country anymore that is trying to help us.”

This is of course the biggest shame of all. It’s long overdue that the media gives America’s working class a voice. It’s just too bad this only happens at the behest of America’s biggest big box retailer and its polling firms.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.