As a political reporter, it’s your job to break one of the cardinal rules of polite society: don't talk to strangers about politics. I do it constantly.
Some of these voter interviews are dull; others are interesting. And then, every once in a while, you find yourself talking to people like Betty Ulmer, Laura Snipes, and Robin S., who I met on Friday at Newt Gingrich’s rally in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Betty, 66, is retired; she wore her blond hair in a short bob and seemed to be the group’s de facto leader. It was her who I initially approached. But Laura, 64, and Robin (she requested that I not use her last name), 48, were soon chatting away, too.
What did they say that was so fascinating? It’s more like what didn’t they say. Watching cable news and reading the blogs, you start to think that voters can be sliced and diced into tidy little demographic and ideological blocs. But the truth is messier—and that’s what my talk with Betty, Laura, and Robin demonstrated.
In the span of 15 minutes or so, these three women managed to give voice to the whole weird, mixed-up stew of conflicting emotions that has the made the 2012 race so unpredictable, and so exciting to watch. They represented voters who have lost their jobs and are struggling economically; voters who are retired and are worried about Social Security and Medicare; voters who won’t vote for Obama but would vote for Hillary; voters who won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon; voters who are Christians but don’t care about Gingrich’s marital infidelities; voters who don’t believe that Obama is a Christian; voters who still don’t know Rick Santorum’s name.
While you wait for the South Carolina results to roll in, read what Betty, Laura, and Robin had to say on Primary Eve. It’s like The Daily Beast’s own little focus group, and I think it speaks volumes about the kind of contest 2012 has been—not to mention the kind of contest it will become.
Andrew Romano: So are you guys Newt supporters, or are you just curious?
Betty Ulmer: I just wanna hear what he says. Haven’t figured out if I’m gonna vote for him yet.
You’ve got a few more hours.
Laura Snipes: I usually end up voting Democrat.
Laura: Because Republicans are so greedy.
But you’re thinking of voting Republican this time?
Betty: I tell you, I’m gonna vote for the man, not the party.
Laura: Me too.
Betty: I have voted Democrat before, for the right man. But I have not voted Democrat for a long time now.
Laura: Even with all the shenanigans that went on, Clinton was good.
Betty: Yeah, Clinton was good. I voted for Clinton.
Laura: I did not like Bush at all. And quite honestly, I would prefer Obama to what I’ve seen so far, to go back in. You can’t just go in in a couple of years and straighten their messes out. I mean, I think he’s trying. He’s made mistakes. These guys aren’t going to be any better.
You disagree, Betty? I saw you shaking your head.
Betty: I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling about him. Some of the things he’d done is OK. I think Social Security... I’m worried that Social Security is not gonna be around.
Laura: I am too.
Betty: And this Obamacare, I’m not even clear what that is.
It’s very complicated.
Betty: It was that thick. How can anybody read through all that.
Laura: I’m not clear on it either. But if Romney wins, it’s the same identical thing.
He did a very similar thing in Massachusetts, but he says he’s going to repeal Obamacare when he becomes president.
Laura: Oh, they’ll tell you anything.
Robin S.: I’m not voting for Romney.
Betty: Me neither.
Robin: Well, he’s a Mormon, for one thing, and I am not. I’m a Christian. There’s a difference between Mormons and Christians. He says it’s the same, but it’s not.
Betty: Is the other guy Sansoros?
Laura: For me it’s a toss-up between him and Ron Paul.
Betty: Ron Paul is too old. And he’s too radical.
Laura: There’s another thing about Romney. He’s paying 15 percent taxes. How the heck is he doing that?
Robin: He’s not paying his share. I went from middle-class to poor-class because I lost my husband and I was forced that way. But that’s the problem. People like him aren’t paying their share of taxes. We don’t have no loopholes in the poor-class.
It is amazing that he’s paying a lower rate than you are.
Robin: We ain’t gotten a raise in five years. I have two jobs. I work for [redacted] and I work for Sears.
Betty: Just to make it. We’ve all been shafted a lot. When you lose a spouse, you lose a whole income. Robin’s lost her spouse and I’ve lost mine. Laura doesn’t have a spouse. So we’re single women.
I can’t even imagine.
Laura: I lost my job as a bartender in Santee, so I had to start drawing Social Security. If it wasn’t for my Avon--because I sell Avon--I don’t know what I’d do. Because that’s what pays my bills. As a bartender, I’d bring home $500 to $1,000 a week, and all of a sudden, just like that, it was gone.
Robin: I never got my husband’s Social Security. That’s a shame: you put in all those years, then it goes to someone else. He died at 52. And my son was 18 when died. You get screwed all the way around.
What does Newt need to say today to win you over?
Betty: I’d like to hear him say what’s he going to do for the retirees. That he’s gonna start looking out for us. When I was young, I didn’t think about it. You better start thinking about it now.
Everyone is talking about Gingrich and his marital history? What do you guys think of that?
Robin: No, that’s not the issue. Everyone of them has done something wrong in their past. Even the ones we don’t know about.
Betty: Even Eisenhower! I don’t care what they do outside their office. I want to know what they’re going to do in the office.
You think other people in South Carolina feel the same way?
Betty: I think a lot of people don’t give a whoop.
[Here, Gingrich started to speak, so I stopped pestering them. But I checked back in after he left the stage.]
So what did you think?
He’s got your vote?
Robin: He’s got my vote too.
What got your vote?
Betty: What he said about Medicare. I wasn’t even aware that Obama had taken that much money out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Which is debatable.)
Are you still going to vote Democrat, Laura?
Laura: I’ll have to see. I may vote Gingrich in the primary tomorrow, but I have to see how they match up. Because I like what he says. The only problem is, when they get into office they can’t always do what they say because they got too many people fighting against them. And that’s really what causes the president not to be able to do the things he says he’s going to do.
Who would be more tempting for you against Obama, Gingrich or Romney?
Laura: I would go with Gingrich. I don’t like Romney at all. I just don’t like... this is gonna sound so stupid. When he’s on stage or giving an interview, he’s talking down to you. And I don’t like that. I just don’t care for it.
Would you ever consider voting for Obama?
Betty: I won’t vote for Obama. I don’t know what he is. He says he’s a Christian, but I don’t know.
He’s a Christian.
Laura: I’ll vote for Obama over Romney. Maybe not over Gingrich, though.
Betty: The only Democrat I’d vote for is Hillary. We need a good strong woman president at some point.