What the 'Walmart Moms' Thought of the Debate

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A focus group of the election's crucial demographic sees the candidates as "talking to each other" rather than to women voters.

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As you may have heard, the crucial election demographic is women. They are the group that moved most to Mitt Romney in his polling surge of the last couple of weeks; their concerns were front and center at Tuesday's presidential debate, with Romney drawing mockery for his line about "binders full of women." Working-class women in particular -- the so-called "waitress moms" -- are seen as 2012's most important swing group.

So whether the candidates impressed these women in the second debate is surely more consequential than how the pundits score the face-off. And according to one focus group, they gave the debate to Obama -- but they wanted more policy specifics, didn't like the cheap point-scoring, and failed to connect strongly with either candidate.

The group consisted of 20 suburban Milwaukee "Walmart Moms" -- women with children under 18 who shopped at Walmart in the past month. (The study was sponsored by Walmart, though the chain's shoppers are also presumably a decent demographic sample of downscale voters.) Led by a bipartisan polling team -- Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Momentum Analysis -- the 20 used dials to record their positive and negative reactions during the debate, then broke into discussion groups afterward.

Here's what they took away from the debate:

* A narrow win for Obama. Before the debate, when the women were asked to rate the candidates on a 1-100 scale, Romney averaged a 48, Obama 51. Afterwards, Obama's average score was 64, Romney's 54. Before the debate, 7 of the women leaned toward Obama, 6 toward Romney, and 7 were firmly undecided; afterwards, the score was Obama 9, Romney 7, with 4 still undecided.

* Quit the bickering. It's a bit of a sexist cliche to say women don't like political confrontation, as if we're all fainting members of the weaker sex. The Walmart moms, rather, just thought the candidates were wasting time they could have spent explaining their policies with all the time spent correcting and challenging each other. And counter to stereotype, they didn't respond to the cheap appeals to empathy: When the candidates told personal stories, they likewise found it a waste of time.

* Positives: Women's issues, energy, Libya. Some of the moms liked Romney's answer on workplace flexibility, while others responded to Obama's discussion of Planned Parenthood and contraception. The candidates' discussion of energy and the environment tested well, as did Obama's affronted defense of his response to the Benghazi attack.

* Negatives: Not enough policy. The women wanted more details and specifics overall, especially about education, the economy, and health care. They wanted the candidates to do more to spell out how they would fulfill their promises and how it would affect their lives. "These women nod almost unanimously as one woman explains that she just did not hear anything from either candidate that she could 'take home' and know it would truly help her and her family," the pollsters wrote in a memo. "And when asked if the candidates were trying to speak directly to them, moms instead agreed the two were 'talking to each other.'"

* Romney is seen as untrustworthy. The women all absorbed the idea that Romney has a five-point plan, but they were hard-pressed to say what it consisted of, and didn't think it was specific enough. On a personal level, "they describe him as 'cocky' and 'arrogant'; these women do not feel like they can trust him."

* Obama is viewed as personable but vague. The president was described as "confident," and the women felt more of a personal connection with him. "But they say they still did not hear him explain how he would make things better over the next four years."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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