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.”

And Romney? “He just makes me nervous,” Helen said. “There’s just something about him. They all lie actually. They all talk bad about this one or that one. They speak to you about things they want you to hear.”

Samantha

Samantha Hocker, 34, who also lives in nearby Beach Lake, was pushing her five-year-old son Eliott in a grocery cart. As we chatted, he busied himself with his new model of a John Deere Gator, a pre-school graduation present. When I asked Hocker if the candidates were speaking to her needs, she answered: “To be honest, I’m not even watching it. Between work”—as a special education teachers’ aide—“the kids, T-ball, and dancing classes, the election is not on my list of priorities.”

But we talked more, and she blurted out: “I’m so disgusted with Obama. I voted for him. He was pushing for better education, and he didn’t come through. We were going to get more money for education, but he hasn’t helped with that.” Instead, she figures, the money got caught up in the war in Iraq. She talked about lay-offs in some Pennsylvania school districts and school closings. That bothered her. “Obama had a lot of people in education who voted for him,” she said, adding that they probably won’t vote for him now.

Hocker said she would probably end up voting for whomever her husband, a mechanic, tells her to vote for, even though they voted for different candidates last time around. She said he was a staunch Republican. “I really did start out liking Obama; he had some really great ideas. They just didn’t work. ”

Denise

Denise, a 40-year-old fourth grade teacher from northeastern New Jersey, wouldn’t give her last name or the town she lived in. She, too, at first was hesitant to talk, but once she got started, she had a lot to say—especially about education. As a teacher and as a member of the teachers’ union, she worries.

Denise has worked eighteen years in New Jersey public schools, and she does not like what is happening to labor unions in Wisconsin, which she called “the stomping ground for the rest of the world.” What’s happening there could happen in New Jersey or anywhere, she said: “They are stripping away union rights in Wisconsin. It was stuff that was negotiated.”

Denise said until nine months ago she was a staunch Republican but has “walked away from the Republican Party. I’m done with the Republican Party.” I asked why. “It’s the war on unions,” she replied. “A year ago I would have said ‘no’ there’s not a war on the middle class. Now I believe that.” She doesn’t care much for New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, either. “He is such a liar. I could go on and on about it.”

The other issue that captures her attention: “Romney is ignoring women’s issues, reproductive rights, and contraception,” she told me. And as the mother of a nine-year-old, she was worried about what contraceptive options might be available to her daughter in the future. “We are going back to the Stone Age,” she said. Who would Denise vote for? “I don’t love Obama either,” she said, noting she was against the idea of a Nanny State. “I think I’m a libertarian.”

David

Then I met David, 40, a New York City cop who works in the Bronx and declined to give his surname. He was visiting relatives in the Poconos. He said he had been a cop for eighteen years but was on desk duty now. “Some lunatic on welfare,” he said, had beaten him up. David said he was “not a big political person. All I know is, they screw me over every two weeks. It’s the taxes.”

The longer we talked, the clearer it became that David did not like welfare programs at all. “That’s the big thing with me—multiple generations on welfare. They live in the projects and all have big screen TVs. They’re living scot-free.” Still, David did not favor scrapping welfare entirely. “They should just revamp it,” he said.

What about the presidential candidates? On that topic he was as decisive as he was about welfare. “None of the politicians are speaking to me,” he said. “They should get rid of all of them and start from scratch. They’re all crooks. They waste my money. There’s no management. Social Security is mismanaged. The whole government is mismanaged.” Who will he vote for? “I am definitely not voting for Obama because of the fiscal crisis,” he said, somewhat defiantly. “I think almost anybody is better than him.” I asked David to sum up in a word how he felt about contemporary politics. “Frustrated,” he said.

Linda

But Linda, a 66-year-old sales clerk at a furniture store, will vote for Obama, although she is not totally sold on the president. “Mr. Romney has no idea of what it is like to be me. I don’t think Mr. Romney knows how to put food on the table and gasoline in the car,” she said. “Mr. Obama speaks more to my concerns—but not all of them.” The economy, Linda said, was key. “We need to put people back to work. That’s the bottom line.”

She had some advice for us journalists covering the candidates: “Get them to speak to us in plain language,” Linda advised. “Speak to the peoples’ concerns. Talk to us on our level and make us understand, and maybe that would help us make a decision about how to vote.”

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.