As the deal to restore funding to the government was coming together in Washington Wednesday evening, “Walmart Moms” were assembling—one group of 10 in Nashville, the other in Kansas City. Each participant had shopped in Walmart at least once in the last month, has a child under 18, and voted in the last election, roughly half for Obama, and half for Romney. Live streamed from their respective cities, they let us know in unvarnished terms what Middle America mothers think about Washington and it’s what you would expect. Partisan politics are “disgusting,” politicians act like kindergarteners, threatening to take their toys and go home when they don’t get their way, plus they’re slackers. They work half days, read Green Eggs and Ham, and play poker online when they should be paying attention.
Listening to these women is humbling because you realize the snippets of information that get through all the noise in their lives tell the larger story of what’s happening in Washington perhaps more directly than the analytical pieces journalists turn out on a daily basis. One woman in Kansas City asked, “Did the Republicans save face? I heard they were worried about looking bad.” Another said she had seen on Facebook that Speaker John Boehner said he’d lost, and a third said paying the federal workers is “just fine, but why couldn’t they have been working all this time?” The last weeks were “like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” said a woman in Nashville.
“Ruthlessly negative about Washington,” is how pollster Neil Newhouse summed up the attitudes of these women. (Newhouse, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, collaborated with Democratic pollster Margie Omero from Purple Strategies on the research.) Distrust in government is not a new phenomenon. The “right track/wrong track” numbers, a bible in the polling industry, have been underwater for almost 10 years. Democrats come out of this latest crisis looking like the more responsible party, but voters are so fed up with Washington, that everybody is damaged. “They point the finger everywhere and nowhere,” says Newhouse. When the moderator in Nashville asked what can be done to turn things around, the women just laughed, as though saving the political system is so out of reach, why bother.
Obama might just as well have been channeling these focus groups when he spoke from the East Room of the White House Thursday morning, saying there are no winners here, and urging Congress to get back to work on the nation’s problems. Democrats see electoral opportunity, a chance maybe to take back the House and to solidify their hold on the Senate, but faith in government has taken such a hit, that everybody is damaged. “They’re losing the enthusiasm of being American,” exclaimed a woman in Kansas City. “They’re losing our enthusiasm for our government.”
Conversely, these women have shown great resilience in a demanding economy since Walmart first convened them in focus groups before the 2012 election. Cass, a 40-year-old restaurant worker in Nashville, puts a happy face on for her three children, then retreats to another room and worries, “How am I going to pay for that?” She likens watching politicians fight to a child seeing their parents fight; it creates a lot of insecurity. A woman in Nashville whose husband just graduated from law school and is making $37,000 called their life a “strugg-ola.” They’ve temporarily moved in with her parents. “God bless them,” she said.
When the moderator in Nashville asked who are the winners and losers, a 30-year-old college graduate who voted for Obama replied, “The American people are the losers.” A lot of heads nodded yes around the table. Asked what they would say to a member of Congress if they had time alone, one woman snapped she wouldn’t tell him anything, she wants to get them all out of there. Yet when pressed as to whether they might be more or less inclined to vote because of their disgust and disappointment, no one was ready to walk away from the ballot box. Instead, they saw it as their duty to become more educated voters, shouldering some of the responsibility for what had gone wrong in Washington.
In the two dozen focus groups that Walmart has conducted in this “moms” series, the longest conversation about getting more women into politics occurred in Nashville, and as the pollsters pointed out, it was unprompted. Asked what would get them excited again about politics, one woman said, “An amazing candidate would have to come out of somewhere—someone who wasn’t polarizing … and with enough support behind him I thought he had a shot.” That sounds like Obama’s 2008 playbook, and when someone ventured it’s time for a woman “because men have screwed up,” Hillary Clinton’s name was sure to come up. “An experienced mature bitch,” is what we need, one woman declared to nods from around the table that Clinton qualifies as “a tough bitch, she’s been through a lot.” An African-American woman then ventured that what the country needs is “a black woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody.”
The Republicans are in terrible shape today, but in a country always focused on “the next big thing,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, it’s not clear whether the damage will be lasting. “The best way to be able to answer the question about what enduring impact the shutdown had on the parties and the president will be by looking at the data in March of next year to see what endures, if anything, of what just happened.” By then of course this week’s deal will have long expired and the two parties could be back at it again—or not.