Last week a NBC News/Marist poll showed President Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a tight race in Florida and Virginia while Obama led by six percentage points in Ohio, another swing state.The top issue: the economy; voters told pollsters the economy trumped social issues by a wide margin, and that was before today’s devastating jobs report. Pennsylvania is another crucial state, and last weekend I held one of CJR’s ongoing “Town Halls”—this one at a Walmart in the Poconos near the town of Honesdale—to hear a bit of what ordinary people are thinking about the issues.

Our sample was far from scientific, of course, but it showed that these Walmart shoppers, at least, are indeed worried about the economy. Also that they are disappointed in the president and have little enthusiasm for either candidate. Some insisted they were not political. But as they began talking, it became clear they were intensely political and had strong views:

Jorge

I met 32-year-old Jorge Jaramillo, who lives in nearby Tafton. He’s a customer service manager at the store and was walking the aisles. Were the presidential candidates answering his concerns? Jaramillo thought for a while
and then answered: “not really.” What’s bugging you, I wanted to know? “It’s probably the job situation,” he answered. “That’s really getting to me, especially here [in northeast Pennsylvania]. It’s hard to get work. Building is down and has been for two or three years.” Jaramillo said he is working four hours a week less than he used to work. “I can tell you in this store, Walmart is making drastic cuts in hours employees can work.”

We talked about other hot button issues in the political mix, including Medicare and healthcare. Jaramillo said he did not worry about Medicare, but he had some opinions about the health reform law. “I am not crazy about any healthcare plan,” he told me. “I am not a fan of what was passed.” The plan, he said, was “like forced on us. It wasn’t what I had hoped for.” What was he hoping for? I tried several variations until I asked if he had been hoping for a system like in France or Canada? “Yes,” he replied, “that’s it.”

“I’m an Independent, but leaning Republican,” Jaramillo said. “The last four years haven’t worked out as well as I had hoped.”

Helen

Helen, who works in Walmart’s bakery, was taking her break when I stopped to chat. She, too, was uneasy about Obama’s health reform law and all the talk about the financial health of Medicare and Social Security. Helen, who is 62, said she would have to keep working for several more years to pay off the mortgage on her house in the town of Beach Lake. She said she was “getting nervous” that Social Security and Medicare may disappear: “Is it going to be there for us?”

Helen went on: “One thing I don’t like about Obama is healthcare.” What in particular does she dislike?—making people buy coverage and penalizing them if they don’t. “If you can’t afford healthcare, how are you going to afford the penalties?” she said. “Why punish them?”

She is also troubled by the high deductibles that people with insurance now pay for their policies. High-deductible insurance is becoming the norm, both for coverage offered by employers and for those who have to buy insurance on their own. Helen told me one lady she knew had to pay $2500 before her insurance paid anything. “She’s not going to take care of herself because she has to pay for some of these things,” she said. “It’s amazing to me to hear how people have to pay $300 for this or $800 for that. Health insurance should be ‘you have it, they pay.’” I asked why she thought this was happening: “It’s what the insurance companies can get away with,” she said.

Helen said she was conflicted about the presidential election. “I’m from the party Obama is from. But I’m not sure I will vote for him. I am not as with him as I was four years ago. And we’ve been diehard Democrats for twenty some years.”

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.