It isn't hard to find plenty of evidence as to why this election is so close, why voters are apprehensive about both their own futures and the country's. Whether it's watching live video of two focus groups with "Walmart moms" in Richmond, Va., and Las Vegas by a bipartisan pair of pollsters, or reading a report to clients from a Wall Street research firm on the economic hardship during this election year, it's clear that the economic pain is real and concerns about the future are deeply held.
Andy Laperriere, the political economist who runs the Washington office of the ISI Group, a highly regarded Wall Street research firm, sent a note to his institutional investor clients on Monday.
This note looks at real disposable personal-income statistics — that is, how much money people have coming in, after taxes and inflation, as measured per capita, year over year, for the last 15 presidential elections going back to 1952. At this point, real per capita disposable personal income is the lowest of the 15 elections, and resembles where it was for President Carter's ill-fated 1980 reelection bid. The next three lowest measures of income growth occurred in 1952, 1960, and 2008. In each of these years, voters ousted the party occupying the White House.
It shouldn't be a shock to anyone that when people aren't moving ahead economically, they often vote for change.
The Walmart moms focus groups were jointly overseen by Democratic pollster Margie Omero and her firm, Momentum Analysis, and by Republican pollster Alex Bratty of the firm Public Opinion Strategies. These groups were a continuation of a four-year research project, funded by Walmart, to study the lives, challenges, and opinions of working- and middle-class mothers. All of these women had shopped at a Walmart at least once in the past month. All had children under 18 in the home. The Richmond focus group featured nine mothers: seven white and two African-American. The Las Vegas group was made up of nine Latina moms. Strong partisans from both sides were excluded from the two focus groups to facilitate a discussion among women whose votes were, to varying degrees, still up for grabs.
It's so important that those of us who live and work within the bubble of Washington, or beyond the Beltway, and enjoy relative comfort if not affluence, appreciate the struggle that so many families face. These are some of the last people to benefit in our trickle-down economy. The frustration with current American politics was voiced by an African-American mother of two from Richmond, Renee, who said early on, "We always get the short end, [it] doesn't matter whether Democrats or Republicans [win]." Others complained about too many false promises and too much "fluff."
While few seemed to think that the economy was getting worse, many did not think that it was improving. There was a split between those who thought that President Obama had his chance to turn things around and those who hesitated about changing presidents when things were so bad. They were uncertain about having to start all over with change in a different direction. With few notable exceptions, these women did not identify so much with "women's issues" as they did with "moms' issues."
For these women, Mitt Romney's business background seems to be a double-edged sword: There's an assumption that as a successful businessman, he brings some expertise to the table when it comes to the economy. But the perception of him being cool and aloof, and the impact of negative ads about his private-equity firm throwing people out of work, raised doubts about his motivations. There were questions about whether he would side with the average American.
To the extent that Obama himself doesn't connect as well with these women as he did in 2008, the president clearly benefits from being seen as "surrounded by women." Several expressed confidence that his wife, Michelle, would set him straight if he ever lost sight of what was good for moms and their kids.
Watching these interviews raised the question: When will the Romney campaign deploy the candidate's wife in earnest? Some might see Ann Romney as an empathetic figure given the health struggles that she has faced while raising five sons.
Many of these women are still window-shopping this election. Clearly, they knew more about Obama. Most had some degree of comfort with him, though they were concerned that he hadn't been more effective. Romney, though, was a blank slate. These voters know little about him beyond the fact that he has been a wildly successful businessman. But what little they know came mostly from Democratic attack ads. In other words, they're still listening.
This article appeared in the Tuesday, June 12, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.