Moms who supported Obama in 08 unsure about 2012

MAITLAND – Cheryl Abbarno was the most excited she’s ever been about a presidential election when Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2008, but she isn’t sure she’ll vote for him again.

“It’s discouraging to me that he’s not doing what he said he’s going to do. When he was campaigning, it was change, change, change, and I don’t see any change,” she said.

Abbarno is a Walmart mom – women with children under 18 at home who shop at the discount superstore – and two polling firms, one Democratic, one Republican, are following women like her because they believe they’ll play a key role in next year’s presidential election.

Their No. 1 concern is the economy. They’re split fairly evenly by party affiliation, but more important, they are persuadable voters who will decide late in the election cycle whether they’ll support Obama or the eventual Republican nominee.

Or, as Neil Newhouse of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies said, they’re the new soccer moms – about 14 percent to 17 percent of the electorate, predominantly white and a key swing group.

In 2008, Walmart moms supported Obama, but in 2010 they voted Republican, though not enthusiastically, according to Public Opinion Strategies and Momentum Analysis, a firm that works with Democratic candidates and groups.

A poll the firms released Wednesday shows 43 percent of Walmart moms approve of Obama’s job performance while 54 percent disapprove. That compares to 46 percent of all voters that approve of Obama and 49 percent who disapprove. Yet 57 percent of the moms said they are still hopeful about the president compared to 42 percent who have given up on him. And three times as many of the moms, 22 percent, blame President George W. Bush for the nation’s economic problems rather than Obama, who 7 percent of the moms say is to blame.

“There are good lessons from this data for both Democrats and Republicans,” said Margie Omero of Momentum Analysis. “The bottom line from these results is that this is a group that can be persuaded either way in the presidential contest.”

The Obama campaign wouldn’t comment on Walmart moms.

Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s Florida operation in 2008, said that the president needs to show the women that his economic plan is better than the alternative.

During the focus groups in Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa, the Walmart moms repeatedly named the economy as the most important issue in the election. Nearly all said they’ve had to make sacrifices, including opening new credit cards for the no-interest promotions, cutting back on meals out and other activities and canceling cable television. One woman said she and her son had to move in with her parents. Another told her kids that Santa is poor this year. Many either had gone through layoffs or had husbands who lost jobs. While other jobs were found, often times it was for less money.

While not blaming Obama, many feel like he hasn’t shown strong enough leadership to build consensus in Congress on how to help middle-class families.

“These voters have clearly lost their passion for President Obama and there’s a sense that he’s kind of lost his passion as well. Some of these voters might vote for him again, but boy, there’s no enthusiasm,” said Newhouse, whose clients include GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It does mean these voters are still up for grabs for the 2012 election.”

He said Republican candidates are focused first on the primary, but the eventual nominee would be wise to win over Walmart moms and talk about kitchen table issues these women care about.

“Not just jobs, but health and housing issues,” Newhouse said, noting that Obama, with the luxury of not having a primary, is already focused on those issues.

What Omero saw in the focus groups was sympathy for the president and a willingness to give him another chance. Because they don’t directly blame him for the nation’s economic woes means he can still persuade them that he cares more about the middle class than his eventual Republican challenger.

“What we heard a lack of is animosity toward Obama, or that he’s gone too far or that he’s taken the country in the wrong direction,” said Omero. “I think it puts Obama at an advantage over other candidates who are offering a different set of policies altogether.”