'Wal-Mart Moms' Hold Warnings for Clinton, Trump

New focus groups offer early hints about which way the key voting demographic is leaning ahead of the 2016 election.

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Photographer: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Key voters dubbed “Wal-Mart moms” have economic concerns that may transcend partisan lines in the 2016 election, and they're highlighting potential problems for top Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump ahead of the first presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February.

In focus groups conducted Tuesday night, likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa cited the national deficit, the U.S. debt to China, insufficient wages, student loans, and dysfunctional government among their leading concerns.

The Republican women were “overwhelmingly negative about the mood of the country,” said pollster Neil Newhouse, who observed the focus groups. “They’re still stressed by the economy.” The Democratic group sounded “Republican-lite” rather than like a markedly different group, on “everything from mood of the country, their personal finances, their attitudes toward” Washington dysfunction, he said.

The groups were made up of 10 women in each state who have shopped at Wal-Mart in the past month and have at least one child under 18 living at home, a swing-vote subgroup in past elections. The organizers, Public Opinion Strategies and Purple Strategies, invited journalists to observe. (Bloomberg Politics has also conducted focus groups with Purple Strategies.) 

While the groups were too small to represent statistically significant samples, the responses of the women—who agreed to be identified by their first names only—offer insights into voters’ views at this stage of the race. Their comments come as a Quinnipiac University poll shows the economy and jobs are the top concern of Democrats and Republicans nationwide.

Lukewarm on Clinton

One caution for Clinton, Newhouse said, is that the Democratic focus group was “less engaged.”

“There wasn’t an embrace of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would look like and that it was good for them,” he said.

Four of those 10 women said they are thinking of supporting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Half said they believed Sanders might defeat Clinton in the primary. Several of the women described Clinton with positive words such as “strong,” “lovable,” and “intelligent.” But some of the women said they didn't trust Clinton and don’t think they have much in common with her. They used words such as “shady” and “shifty” to describe her. Most said they did not feel a special affinity for her because she’s a woman.

QuickTake Gender Gap

Asked what emotion they’d feel if Clinton won the presidency, a couple of the women said hopeful and one said secure, while others said they would feel nervous, worried, or unsettled.

Sanders’s liabilities included women’s sense that they don’t know him well enough to render judgment, as well as concerns about his age.

“He’s already old. They’re going to wear him out,” said Annette, a divorced African-American woman who works in sales, about the 74-year-old Sanders and Republicans.

A Monmouth University poll conducted from Oct. 22-25 in Iowa found Clinton with a 41 percentage point lead over Sanders.

Republican Intensity

In addition to concerns they shared with the Democratic group, the Republican women also emphasized rising insurance costs, illegal immigration, and a desire to undo President Barack Obama’s record. They also expressed a stronger belief that 2016 was an important election.

The group's comments indicated the race for the GOP presidential nomination is still wide open. Most of the women expressed a growing distaste for Trump’s habit of insulting opponents and some U.S. minority groups.

Seven of the 10 women said they haven’t been able to narrow their choice for Republican nominee down to fewer than four candidates. Florida Senator Marco Rubio held the broadest appeal, with nine of the 10 women saying he is among those they are considering. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was next, with eight saying she's still a contender for their vote, followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul with seven each. Five said they were still considering Texas Senator Ted Cruz and four former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Only two of the women said they’re open to supporting Trump.

A Monmouth University poll conducted Oct. 29-Nov. 1 found Trump in first place in New Hampshire with 26 percent, followed by Carson with 16 percent.

“In the beginning I’m thinking, ‘Trump might be good,’” said Jill, a married mother of one who works as a kitchen manager. “Then he started talking,” she said. “He’s so insulting to everyone.”

Another participant, Johanna, a customer service worker and mother of two, said her 5-year-old asked if Trump was “joking” because “you can’t talk to people like that.” 

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