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Wal-Mart Moms Torn on Health Care Become Campaign Targets

Angela Proxmire doesn’t know which is worse: keeping the health-care law President Barack Obama passed, which has cost her family money and peace of mind, or the prospect that Mitt Romney will be elected and scrap the measure outright.

The 45-year-old mother of three has had to switch her family’s doctors and health plans to avoid premium increases her insurer blamed on the 2010 law, and stop sending her asthmatic 13-year-old son to biannual sessions with a specialist. Yet when she looks toward the November elections, conflicted over whether to support Obama as she did in 2008 or cast her vote for Republican rival Romney, she’s worried about the alternative.

“I feel a little bit like Obama hasn’t come through with his promises on health care because it’s a huge chunk of our income, and costs have been going up,” Proxmire said as she shopped for plastic storage bins and housewares at a Wal-Mart store in Sterling, Virginia. “I can’t say I know exactly what Romney will do, but I know he wants to get rid of it, and that scares me too, thinking that it could be even more expensive and then we’re really on our own to figure out how to find coverage.”

Proxmire is part of a group of mostly low- to middle-income mothers living in suburbs and exurbs who are viewed by both the Obama and Romney campaigns as potentially crucial swing voters, and are conflicted over the issue of health care.

Defining Wal-Mart Moms

Dubbed Wal-Mart moms, these voters are defined by polling experts who have studied them as women with children 18 years of age or younger living at home and who shop at the superstore at least once a month. They supported Obama in 2008 and then switched to back Republicans in the 2010 congressional election. They comprise 27 percent of all registered women voters, making them about 14 percent of the electorate, according to the research.

Their fluid voting patterns put them up for grabs in the 2012 presidential contest. They are a key area of focus for Romney’s campaign, which employs Neil Newhouse, who has researched them extensively, as its pollster.

“Health care decisions are really part of the daily struggle that these moms go through,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic polling expert at the Washington-based firm Momentum Analysis who partnered with Newhouse to research the group. “They’re the ones that have to make doctor’s appointments and do the follow-ups and fill the prescriptions. A lot of these moms aren’t quite sure how the health-care reform bill is going to affect them, so there are some opportunities for candidates in both parties to really talk about that.”

Supreme Court Ruling

The discussion is likely to heat up this month, with the Supreme Court to rule as soon as June 25 on a legal challenge to the health-care law and Democrat Obama ramping up his defense of the measure that Romney promises to repeal and replace it. The measure was designed to expand insurance to at least 30 million people -- in part through mandating that every adult American obtain coverage -- and control soaring costs in an industry that accounts for 18 percent of the U.S. economy.

While the economy is by far the top issue on voters’ minds, women are much more likely than men to name medical care as an important topic, said Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks views of the health-care law.

Gender Gap

A May 8-14 survey by Kaiser showed that while 50 percent of men have an unfavorable opinion of the measure, compared with 31 percent who view it favorably, women are nearly split and more likely to favor it, with 42 percent viewing it positively compared to 39 percent who see it negatively.

“There’s probably a bigger group of women who are in play with their attitudes on it,” Hamel said.

That’s true at the Sterling Wal-Mart, located in politically competitive Loudoun County, Virginia, which supported Obama in 2008 and one year later joined the state’s other voters in backing Republican Bob McDonnell for governor.

An exurb situated 29 miles outside of Washington near the Dulles Technology Corridor, the county is Virginia’s fastest growing, adding 142,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The growth was largely spurred by an influx of minorities; the Hispanic population in the county tripled during that decade while the Asian population rose from 9,000 to 46,000.

‘On the Fence’

As Sarah Petrus and her 12-year-old daughter strolled the toy aisle at the Wal-Mart, the woman said she’s “on the fence about” the law. A nursing student who backed Obama’s Republican opponent Arizona Senator John McCain in 2008, Petrus said while the president’s health-care proposal had some good aspects, it hasn’t worked out as planned.

“I am interested in Romney because I am really hoping he can improve it so that health-care costs actually go down, but it always concerns me when a new president comes along -- it’s so much uncertainty,” Petrus said. “Maybe Obama should get more time and some of the benefits will start panning out.”

If there’s one constant in how Wal-Mart moms view the health-care law, say pollsters, it’s that they want specific, quantifiable information about what they and their families have to gain or lose from it.

“They’re open to hearing from both sides on health care, and they want to feel that how they vote is a positive for their families,” said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster who works with Newhouse at Alexandria, Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies and has also partnered with Omero to track Wal-Mart moms. “There’s this hunger for real reassurance: ‘Show me the specifics, show me the plan, show me how it’s going to work.’”

Romney Challenge

The challenge is especially acute for Romney, Bratty said, since these women -- who like most swing voters tend not to pay much attention to the political debate until just before the election -- don’t know much about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee or his health-care plans.

Romney has been working in recent days to fill in some of those blanks, delivering a June 13 speech in Orlando, Florida, in which he said he would give states and insurance companies the responsibility for covering the uninsured and provide tax breaks to help people afford medical coverage. He would scrap the mandate to purchase insurance that is central to Obama’s measure and the prohibition barring insurance companies from denying coverage to everyone with a pre-existing health condition; only those who already had insurance would enjoy that protection.

Obama’s Pitch

Obama and his allies are targeting women voters with material touting popular provisions of the law that are already in place, such as the guarantee of coverage for those suffering from pre-existing conditions and allowing children to remain on their parents’ health plans until age 26. The Democratic National Committee sent out mailers in March that listed ways the law would help them, including “preventing discrimination against women like you.”

“It’s a propaganda war in essence, and it really is going to depend on which side is able to define for women a more compelling story about what is good or bad for them about this legislation,” said Susan J. Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It’s more a battle of perception that anything else.”

During a June 6 Wal-Mart Moms focus group in Virginia, a woman identified as Stephanie J. named health care as a top issue and said she was struggling in the current system. Costs are so high, she said, that the insurance plan she can afford won’t cover testing for both herself and her son for celiac disease, a gluten intolerance from which her daughter suffers that is thought to be hereditary.

Demanding Specifics

Stephanie said she wanted more specifics from Romney about how he would manage costs. “Show me an affordable but good health care,” she said. “How are you going to do that?”

Wal-Mart moms also are preoccupied with the sluggish economy, as they are often the ones in their households who most directly deal with the real-world consequences of joblessness and underemployment: paying bills, shopping for groceries and gas, and maintaining ever-tighter budgets.

“We’re OK, but we live on a budget, and it gets harder all the time,” said Proxmire, the mother of three.

Some have fared even worse. A mother of two identified as Sarah S. at the Wal-Mart focus group said the weak housing market has left her husband, a contractor, with little work and upended their housing and family plans.

“We lost our home and we’ve had to downsize,” she said. “We wanted more kids and we haven’t had them, because we’re afraid we can’t afford them.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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