The Midterm Electorate Is Anxious and Unsettled

A new preoccupation with domestic and international security displaced economic worries at the top of voters' minds in two swing-state focus groups.

Susan Stapleton/Reuters

Less than two months before the midterm elections, American voters are frightened and unsettled by conditions in the U.S. and around the world. They crave stability, distrust politicians, and have little faith that changing control of Congress would accomplish anything. And while few are pleased with President Obama's leadership, they don't see the November elections primarily as a referendum on it.

These were the attitudes expressed in a pair of focus groups of swing-voting women on Tuesday night. The two panels of middle-income mothers in Little Rock and Des Moines revealed a political landscape that has shifted markedly since the last election, as economic anxieties appear to have ebbed and worries about physical security have risen to take their place. The "Walmart Moms"—women with children living at home who shop at Walmart, which underwrites the panels, at least once a month—aren't a perfectly representative slice of the electorate. But they have mirrored the electorate's swings in the last three elections, and they offer a window into the sentiments that will determine this year's vote.

Most strikingly, the women in both groups expressed pervasive worry about violence. From the Islamic State to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to local crime and school shootings, these concerns were at the top of their minds. The word "scary" came up repeatedly when they described the state of the world, along with "unsettled" and "unstable." Amanda, a 31-year-old African-American mother of five in Little Rock, compared the situation to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: "You never know what you're going to get. One day you're okay; the next day there's something overseas or a school shooting. We're okay for like a month, then here comes something else." Louise, a white Des Moines travel agent with one child who voted for Romney, said she didn't think Obama was handling ISIS well: "I think we needed to take action, and he's just stepped back .... I don't think it's going to stay in that part of the world." Jerri, an Obama voter, agreed: "It just seems like when he's put under a lot of pressure, he just stops." An Obama voter in Des Moines described the president as "more reactive than proactive."

This emphasis on security was a departure from previous groups, many of which I've covered in the past few years, in which economic anxiety has overwhelmingly dominated. Neil Newhouse, the Republican half of the bipartisan team of pollsters conducting the study, said he'd never heard that sense of instability from voters before. Margie Omero, his Democratic counterpart, concurred: "There was so much more salience on crime and safety than I've heard in a long time, and it broke across racial lines." The pollsters noted that other international turmoil in recent years has not made such a strong impression on the mom groups. Recent polling also supports the idea of a newly national-security-focused electorate, with war-weariness receding somewhat and a majority of Americans favoring military action against ISIS, though most still do not support ground troops.

The women in the groups were split between Obama and Romney voters, but nobody's assessment of the president was particularly positive. Loyalists and even some antagonists thought he was trying his best, but many expressed disappointment. "He's on vacation, golf-coursing, while the country's going to crap!" said Dana, a 43-year-old Little Rock mother of three. On the other hand, there was little white-hot anti-Obama anger of the sort that was common in 2010. Many of this year's Republican candidates are counting on voters' disapproval of the president to help them, as voters punish Democratic candidates for supporting Obama's agenda. But the women, asked how Obama would influence their vote, insisted they would evaluate the candidates for their individual characteristics and views on issues. And their anger at Washington wasn't focused solely on the president. "I think our federal funds are used unwisely, I think the buck stops too high up," said Pam, a divorced, 51-year-old Romney voter in Little Rock. "They pay themselves too much, and they pay for too many services." The moms' frustration encompassed Congress and both parties, not just Obama.

Similarly, there was some talk of Obamacare, but feelings were mixed, with some saying they'd benefited while others expressed distaste. Teresa, a 35-year-old Obama voter in Little Rock, said she thought Obama had spent too much time on health care and "lost focus" on more important things. One woman said she arrived at the focus group late because her children lost their doctor and had to start going to a new one. But Debra, a divorced Des Moines mother of two, said she was happy to give up some of her income to "take care of the poor," even though she understood others were unhappy about the law.

Other supposedly raging national issues played little role in the discussion. Immigration did not come up at all in Little Rock and was only mentioned briefly in Des Moines, where two of the women worried about finding a compassionate way to deal with the children on the border and the undocumented around the country. Social issues, too, were barely alluded to: One member of the Des Moines group brought up Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst's support for a "personhood" measure, which she perceived as limiting access to birth control and morning-after pills. Another, an Obama voter, praised the president for increasing equality for women and gays. Several women who identified themselves as religious worried about the decline of faith in society. In Des Moines, after one woman criticized Ernst for wanting to destroy the separation of church and state, another responded, "I like that idea of church and state coming back together again, because I feel like we've gotten so far away from it."

Many of the women decried the brutal nature of campaigns and wished the candidates would spend more time emphasizing the positive. "Every time you turn on the TV it's negative, negative," Jerri said. "I'm trying to figure out what they're going to do." Nonetheless, most of the voters' views of the candidates and their campaigns were drawn from negative campaign ads, neatly illustrating why candidates never heed such pleas for positivity. Women in both groups also expressed the view that politicians are bought and paid for by their donors. Asked about the Koch brothers, the billionaire libertarians who are spending hundreds of millions to influence the midterms and whose name Democrats have tried to turn into a slur, no one in the Little Rock focus group could say who they were. In Des Moines, however, a couple of Obama voters associated the Kochs with Ernst: "She supports their agenda, like privatizing Social Security," said Marguerite. "They fund her—they support her campaign," Rochelle added.

The women's views of the hotly contested Senate races in their states were largely unformed. Few had solid opinions of the candidates—in Arkansas, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and his Republican challenger, Representative Tom Cotton; in Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst. In Little Rock, Teresa summed up the commercials she'd seen this way: "Mark Pryor has apparently changed a whole lot and not voted for Arkansas, and Tom Cotton was apparently in the military at some point." In Des Moines, no one could say what Braley—a four-term congressman from a different part of the state—did for a living. One was sure he was "a criminal" but couldn't say why. Impressions of Ernst, however, were vivid and polarized. "She rides a Harley." "She has guns." "She believes in God." "She inseminates pigs." (If only, the pigs might respond.) All of the women indicated they were somewhat or very likely to vote, but many said they planned to do more research closer to election day. One planned to check the candidate scorecard put out by Rock the Vote, while another was counting on her Christian Coalition newsletter. If the vote were held today, the Des Moines women would pick Braley, 6 votes to 4, while the Little Rock group would choose Cotton, 5 to 4, with one unable to decide.

These results are anecdotal, of course, and highly preliminary. Many of the women said their minds were not made up. But they align with recent polls in their respective states. More importantly, the attitudes the women expressed provide a window into this year's changed political landscape. In 2008 and 2010, the financial crisis was fresh in people's minds, and economic fear and anger were raw. This time, while there is still plenty of economic anxiety, the women "were not as personally anxious as past groups," Omero said. "There was a little more personal optimism, but consistent global pessimism." Nor was the Obama effect as powerful as 2010 or, among Republicans, 2012. Based on what they saw, both pollsters agreed the elections are very much up in the air. "A couple of years ago, it was all about the economy," Newhouse said. "Now it's not that."