Back in the 2002 and 2004 elections, we heard a lot about so-called "Security Moms." Once focused almost exclusively on domestic issues like education, crime, and the economy, the priorities of these "Soccer Moms" shifted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Instead of pocketbook issues, they were focused on peace of mind. They wanted a president who could keep the country (and their kids) safe. Over ten years later, and in the wake of two gruesome beheadings, we are seeing the early signs of a resurgence of a security-focused voter, and it could have a real impact on the midterm elections.
The latest polls have shown a sharp uptick in the number of people who are concerned about the threat of terrorism both here and abroad. A Pew poll found that 53 percent of Americans are "very concerned" about the possibility of a rise in Islamic extremism in the U.S. which ties a record high. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found a whopping 47 percent of Americans saying they feel less safe than before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
I found a similar sentiment among women voters in the battleground states of Iowa and Arkansas. Earlier this week, I had the chance to observe focus groups of 20 women – ten in Little Rock and ten in Des Moines – dubbed the Walmart moms. These focus groups are sponsored by Walmart and conducted by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Margie Omero of Purple Strategies. Walmart moms are defined as women with children 18 or younger at home and who shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month. Newhouse and Omero have been conducting these focus groups of moms since 2009 and "have found them to be a proven swing block."
These women are what are known in polling parlance as "low information" voters. They are not engaged in the day-to-day political news. Few could name any members of congressional leadership (Pelosi was the one name they could muster). Most of them had very rough (or nonexistent) opinions of the candidates running for the Senate in their state - despite the almost nonstop advertising there from both sides. In other words, these are the kind of late deciding voters that could swing an election.
While economic anxiety is still an ever-present concern among these women ("prices of everything go up but we get further behind," complained one mom in Little Rock), physical security has taken on a more salient role than it has in recent years. When asked by the moderator to describe "how things are going" in the country, the women in these groups used words like scary, unstable and unsettled. Concerns about violence, from ISIS to school shootings to the riots in Ferguson, were top of mind for these women. One woman in Little Rock remarked that life felt like "a box of chocolates... where you never know what you are going to get" day to day. From Ebola to ISIS to Ferguson, this summer has been both unpredictable and predictably unstable.
Pollsters Omero and Newhouse noted that the fact that many Walmart moms express specific concern about ISIS is "unusual for swing voters and not a common theme we have heard in previous groups. Often," write Omero and Newhouse, "international conflicts and turmoil have gone unnoticed by moms as their focus has been directed to domestic issues that had a direct impact on their household."
This isn't to say that these women were clamoring to go to war. None of them mentioned airstrikes or "boots on the ground." They simply want a sense of stability and security. They know that while the world is a big, scary place, they don't want to worry about sending their child into a school that, as a woman said in Little Rock, "is getting shot up."
Moreover, they don't quite know who they trust to bring them this much deserved security. They give poor marks to President Obama. When asked to rate him they use words like "disappointed, "not trying enough," and "let down". However, Congress doesn't rate any better. One woman in Iowa described Congress as "out of touch." "Do they even pump their own gas, or buy their own groceries?" another asked. Others expressed frustration at the gridlock and fighting. None of the women in either city believed that things would get any better if Republicans took control of the Senate.
There is an anxiety about safety and security like we haven't seen since 2001. For these 20 Walmart moms, concerns about their personal safety have, in the words of Omero and Newhouse, "supplanted economic anxiety." Democrats, who had been hoping that a strong populist economic message could win them some key races, must now contend with the reality that voters - even those who normally tune out international crises- are deeply concerned about the threat of terrorism and a sense of unraveling here at home. This is why you are hearing nervous Democrats pleading for a direct and decisive response from the White House to the violence overseas. Based on what I saw in these focus groups and what we're seeing in national polling, voters aren't necessarily looking to shake things up. Instead, in the words of one Des Moines mom, they are looking for the candidate who can provide a "more stable future."