By Chris Taylor
(Reuters) - Laura Bartlett doesn't think of herself as the key to the 2012 elections. She's a bank employee, mother of two and budding comedian with the troupe Four Funny Females. And honestly, the she couldn't care less about politics.
But that doesn't mean pollsters aren't keenly interested in what she's thinking and feeling. After all, she's in the heart of a demographic that's been the subject of some recent political research: The Wal-Mart Mom.
The Dallas resident is more bemused than anything else. "I really don't know what to think," says the 44-year-old, who hits up her local Wal-Mart for groceries. "Maybe I should feel special, like I'm being courted. By the way, if any pollster wants to pay my Wal-Mart tab, that would be nice. I can definitely be bought."
To political operatives, Wal-Mart Moms are no joke. They're defined as women with kids who have shopped at the popular discounter within the past month. They're generally white and working-class, with almost half having household incomes below $50,000. And just how big a political punch do they pack? In an age when candidates scratch and claw for every 1 percent of the vote, they represent a full 16 percent of the electorate.
In 2008, the bloc picked Barack Obama over John McCain, helping the Democrat to victory. In the 2010 midterms, they shifted to the Republicans, helping the party pick up major gains. No wonder politicos are paying attention.
To pick the brains of those moms, recent focus groups were put together by research firms Public Opinion Strategies and Momentum Analysis, on behalf of - you guessed it - Wal-Mart, eager to promote the importance of its own customer base.
The findings, as you might expect given a deeply troubled economy, are decidedly dark: "Although these moms were squeezed last year, there is a real sense that life is that much worse and the economic strain is taking its toll," the report's authors write. "Every week is another crisis for these moms, and they wonder when it is going to end."
It has to be asked, though: What happened to all the past political flavors-of-the-month, like Soccer Moms and Nascar Dads (a demographic based on fans of auto racing sports events)? Are they still out there in the political landscape, pining by the phone for a pollster to call?
They haven't gone away, exactly. But the influence of voting blocs waxes and wanes with each new election result. "Pollsters put theories out there, and those theories can be proven or disproven by elections," says Amy Leveton, senior vice president at powerhouse political research firm Penn Schoen Berland.
"Soccer Moms did indeed turn elections, and were a swing vote that helped decide winners. With Nascar Dads, it wasn't as clear that anything turned on their votes, and so they've become less newsworthy."
Indeed, the Wal-Mart Mom might just be updated packaging for that critical Soccer Mom demographic. Packaging designed by Wal-Mart itself, since it injects customers and their concerns into the political conversation.
"We are excited Wal-Mart Moms continue to be on the center stage of the political debate, and serve as a voice for all Americans," says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.
That trick might not work for a smaller demographic, of course. (Applebee's Uncles, anyone?) But when you're as ubiquitous as Wal-Mart - 4,400 stores and 1.4 million employees in the U.S., serving customers 200 million times a week around the globe - you apparently have the kind of clout to be defining voting blocs.
Wal-Mart wants "to be seen as thought leaders, with their finger on the pulse of what their customers are thinking and feeling. And they get some ink, with plenty of coverage for the exact audience they're trying to appeal to," Leveton says.
In fact, the Wal-Mart Mom might be a very appropriate new incarnation of the Soccer Mom, given the lean state of the economy.
Those moms on the sidelines of the soccer field, juggling various leisure activities, had more of an upper-middle-class sheen; they were once described by pollster Ron Lester as being wearers of "Bruno Magli shoes," with average incomes of $50,000 on their own.
Now, with many incomes shrinking, most moms are focused on the deadly serious business of finding bargains for their families. And that's something that's common to Americans of all income levels.
"I wouldn't make assumptions that Wal-Mart Moms are downscale," says Margie Omero, founder of Momentum Analysis, who helped assemble the new research. "They're very much like women across the board - as head of their households, they're feeling the economic squeeze very personally, and are making tough decisions about what to cut."
Take a Wal-Mart Mom like New York-based Melissa Daly. "Given the economy, everyone's being more frugal these days," says Daly, a financial communications consultant with MFD Communications. "We're all facing financial hardship and looking for bargains. That's why we're shopping there."
So could Daly's love of loading up on $3 T-shirts for her young son somehow translate into a political movement? She admits to being a tad flattered. "I'm obviously not a Nascar Dad, so I've never really been focused on like this," says Daly, 41. "I'm always happy when someone wants to hear my opinion."
The jury's out on whether Wal-Mart Moms will stick around as a political force, or if they eventually recede into the background, like the Sarah Palin-inspired Hockey Moms you don't hear much about anymore. Ask Wal-Mart Moms themselves, and they seem skeptical that anyone in Washington will actually listen to them. Which, when you think about it, fits the current zeitgeist just about perfectly.
"Politicians are all so fickle," says Dallas' Laura Bartlett. "It's almost like Wal-Mart Moms are a fad, and we'll eventually give way to guppy owners or Target shoppers or Pizza Hut grandmas. We'll be replaced soon - so don't put too much stock in us."
(Edited by Martin Howell)