Washington may be locked in a blood feud over control of the Senate, but in Little Rock, Arkansas and Des Moines, Iowa, voters in two separate focus groups said whichever party emerges the victor, nothing would change and “they’d still be arguing.” In fact, they’re not even sure who controls the Senate now: Asked to name congressional leaders, voters in Arkansas said Nancy Pelosi, but were otherwise stumped until someone volunteered Donald Rumsfeld.
These are some of the findings gleaned Tuesday from so-called Wal-Mart moms, voters with children age 18 or younger at home and who shopped at Wal-Mart at least once in the past month. With control of the Senate resting on the outcome of seven too-close-too-call races, political consultants turn to focus groups to divine what voters are thinking and what they want from their leaders.
The November election was supposed to be about the economy, immigration and Obamacare, but that was two beheadings ago. Now concerns about personal security and international unrest are influencing voter attitudes along with the more traditional bread-and-butter issues.
In Arkansas, Democrat Mark Pryor is trying to fend off a strong challenge from Republican Tom Cotton. In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley is in a tight race with Republican Joni Ernst. Millions of dollars on attack ads have been spent in each state, with millions more to come. Yet these voters have taken away only a relatively small amount of information, and this early in the campaign season, their votes are fluid.
Asked which candidate they would vote for if they had to decide today, Pryor or Cotton, it was 5 to 4 Cotton, with one undecided. Asked if their vote could change before the election, one woman, laughing, said, “It could change in an hour!” All the women in both groups had voted in 2012 and are likely or somewhat likely to vote in November, but there was no passion shown for any of the candidates. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse dubbed them “civic duty voters,” and at the end of the evening said, “If control of the Senate runs through these two states, it’s up for grabs.”
Voters don’t like negative ads but it’s where they get their information, whether they realize it or not. One woman quoted an anti-Pryor ad almost word for word, saying, “Pryor has absolutely changed a whole lot, he hasn’t voted for Arkansas.” Another said Tom Cotton wants you to wait until you’re 70 for social security, a line from Pryor’s ads.
The women made fun of Pryor’s plaid shirt that he favors in campaign ads, and said that Cotton “standing there like he’s an old country boy, it’s so fake.” Asked if Cotton could beat Pryor, the answer was a resounding yes “because he’s the new kid on the block, and people want something fresh.”
The Des Moines women called their Senate contest “ugly,” the kind of race where you vote for the lesser of two evils. When the moderator asked if they felt like they know the two candidates, there was a long pause, especially when it came to Rep. Bruce Braley, who was first elected to Congress in 2007. “What does he do?” the moderator pressed. No one seemed to know, though Rochelle, a 40-ish senior manager with one child who voted for Obama in 2012, seemed to want to give Braley the benefit of the doubt.
“My perception is he does his job,” she said. “Maybe he doesn’t have the funds to support what this has turned into.”
Asked what they knew about Republican Joni Ernst, one woman volunteered, “She rides a Harley.” Another said, “She castrates pigs.” After the laughter subsided, the moderator pressed, “What else do you know about her, any impressions of her?” “Only negative ones,” one woman interjected, prompting Louise, a 50-ish travel agent who voted for Romney in 2012, to say, “She has a lot of enemies, but once you get past the negatives, I can see some positives.”
While hardly a ringing endorsement, it shows that at least among these women there is a more fully developed picture of Ernst than of Braley. Asked why that is the case, Jill, whose age is listed as between 25 and 34, said, “She’s like everyone in this room, female and middle aged, maybe that’s why we know more about her.”
The good news for Obama is that these voters don't see any connection between him and these races, which defies conventional wisdom that a president’s low popularity is a drag on his party’s chances. Still, the description of how these voters feel about Obama’s leadership is blunt and brutal. In their words, they’re discouraged, disappointed, scared and afraid. The kindest thing said about him by those who voted for him is that he’s “trying.”
“You can’t do your job if everyone is against you,” said Amanda, a 31-year-old African-American military veteran in Little Rock, and an Obama supporter. But even the women who voted for Romney, while angry at Obama, don’t seem to blame him for everything they don’t like. “Obama is seen as hamstrung by the political climate, not the cause of it,” said Margie Omero with Purple Strategies, the bipartisan firm that worked with Public Opinion Strategies and Neil Newhouse, her Republican counterpart.
The most searing quote about Obama’s leadership came from Leta, a 50-year old homemaker with four children in Little Rock, who said, “He’s on vacation, golf-coursing, and the country is going to crap.” The optics of Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation amidst the growing ISIS threat was not lost on anyone, but congressional leaders did not fare any better. How many different ways can you say disappointed and disgusted? The women in both focus groups wanted to know.
Correction: An earlier version of this article called Purple Strategies a Democratic firm.