THE THICK OF IT

10.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Why Voters Are So Totally Checked Out

So much for polls: “Walmart moms” in two states with hard-fought Senate elections say they’ll make up their minds the night before Election Day.

Senate races remain stubbornly tight in key states with a number of voters unable to make up their minds at least in ways that pollsters can measure. But two all-female focus groups in North Carolina and Louisiana offered clues about what voters are thinking far away from the D.C. bubble.

The women gathered around a table Monday night in Charlotte and in New Orleans are registered voters, but this election they’ve pretty much tuned out politics. It’s just too depressing when all the candidates do is bash each other. And world affairs are no comfort either, with Ebola surfacing as the latest scary thing.  

Better to put on blinders, they say, and focus on home and family.

The fact that Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana are women doesn’t much impress these voters, dubbed Walmart Moms for their shopping habits and having at least one child under 18 at home. When asked whether they would vote for Hagan or her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, they resisted siding with either candidate. Asked if Hagan deserves reelection, not a single hand went up -- which is the same thing that happened when asked if she didn’t deserve reelection.

“All those ads and you don’t know one way or another?” the moderator pressed. Many millions have been spent on television ads in North Carolina, as groups on the right and left try to sway the electorate. 

When would they decide? “When it gets closer to the time,” one woman said. How would they decide? “Google it,” said another. When? “Probably the night before.”

What did these voters take away from all those ads? They learned that Hagan is trying to portray Tillis as “a fraud…someone who changes his mind…who’s not stable,” and they heard that Tillis wants to raise the retirement age for social security to 70, and they know that he opposes raising the minimum wage. But asked to recall specific ads, the one that sticks with them says Hagan “skipped votes to go to a fundraiser.” Actually it was a hearing on the ISIS threat that Hagan missed; either way, it feeds into the preconception that politicians care foremost about their reelection.

Finally, asked to vote despite their misgivings about Hagan or Tillis, the ten women, amidst groans and sighs about how hard the decision is, mirrored the divided North Carolina electorate: five for Hagan, five for Tillis.

“If control of the senate goes through North Carolina, then these women are ripe for the picking,” declared Neil Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose firm, Public Opinion Strategies, conducted the focus groups together with Margie Omero of Purple Strategies.

The moderator in New Orleans kicked off the conversation about the senate race saying she knew nothing other than the candidate’s names, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy. And there’s one other candidate, she noted. “Romney?” a woman guessed. 

The former GOP presidential candidate had been in the state raising money for Cassidy last month. The third candidate is Tea Party-backed candidate Rob Maness, whose presence in the race will likely deny either major candidate the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. 

Asked what Landrieu wants voters to know about Cassidy, the women replied, “he’s the devil… he would take away Medicaid… he wants tax cuts for the wealthy… he would increase the social security age to 70…he does not want to raise the minimum wage.”

Asked what Cassidy wants them to know about Landrieu, the women all knew that she lives in a multi-million dollar house in Washington, and that she doesn’t live in New Orleans. Does she deserve to be reelected? After a chorus of no’s, one woman said, “If she’s not living here, how is she supposed to know what the true problems are – unless her brother tells her,” a comment that evoked laughter. Landrieu’s brother is the mayor of New Orleans. Her official residence is the New Orleans house she and her siblings grew up in – the home where her parents still live.

After all the frivolity at Landrieu’s expense, three of the ten women said they would vote for her. The other seven said they were undecided. No one would commit to Cassidy. Several of the women said they might not vote at all, but if the race went to a December runoff, they would vote, probably for Cassidy. “I’m tired of Landrieu,” said one.

Key findings in these focus groups about what drives voters should give pause to strategists and ad-makers in both parties. In a scary world, Ebola has replaced ISIS as the main topic of concern. “Right now Ebola is in the U.S., ISIS is over there,” said a Louisiana woman. “With so much happening, you have to pick and choose,” explained another. But Ebola is “not a voting issue,” says Newhouse, though it feeds into a toxic environment where world events seem out of control, and where the government, as one woman put it, is “always playing catch-up.”

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Secondly, Obama is not a deciding factor. The women roundly rejected any notion that his standing would influence their vote in these senate contests. Still, their assessment of him as a leader is withering. They say he’s “given up” and he’s “unsure” as a president. “I’m not into politics,” said one woman, “but it seems like nothing’s ever finished. There’s no follow through.”

“I don’t know good or bad,” said another of Obama. “I just don’t get the sense he’s a real leader.”

Obama’s defenders in New Orleans pushed back. Republicans vote against his policies “just to prove Obama is no good in office – it almost feels racist,” said an African-American woman who voted for Obama in 2012.  

Congress fares worse, and is dismissed as “a joke.” They don’t know who the leaders are other than Nancy Pelosi, and they’re not sure of her position in Washington. Asked about John Boehner, one woman said he seems sincere when he speaks, but when asked what kind of a job he’s doing, she said, “I have no idea.”

When the moderator of each group asked if anyone had heard of Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid, the senate’s respective party leaders, there was nothing but blank stares.

Republicans are banking on the demonization of Harry Reid as part of their strategy to pick up the six seats they need to gain the majority. With Reid evoking no response from these women, Newhouse noted with a wry smile, “We’re not going to win the senate by running against Harry Reid down there.”

The midterms, now two weeks away, are unfolding against a backdrop of world chaos and disorder that Newhouse describes as “the new normal.”  After recent events involving medieval style beheadings and a plague-like virus, these women say they’re numb -- that nothing can shock them anymore. “America is in the crapper,” said one especially quotable mom.  Another said simply, “The sad news is becoming familiar.”

Focus groups are not polls; they can’t predict the outcome. But the unscripted responses these women provide should be a cautionary tale for anyone daring to predict with any certainty what will happen on November 4th. “There’s a much lower level of engagement than you’d expect given all the ads, and all the money,” says Omero, the Democratic pollster. “They’re tuning it out.” And with that apathy comes consequences they can’t imagine.