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 cancelling 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.
Omero said that just because Walmart moms are late deciders, it doesn't mean that candidates shouldn't begin reaching out to them.
"Candidates that wait too long to try to reach out to these voters, whether you're talking about the presidential level or congressional and statewide level, does so at their peril," she said. "These moms are going to need more contact, they're going to need more exposure, they're going to need advertising, even more campaign events."
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.'"
Not that it's going to be easy.
"With the economy such that it is and with these voters that are swing to begin with, it is going to be difficult for the president. These were not enthusiastic hardcore Democrats, so they are going to sound a little bit less engaged, but they haven't made up their mind to vote for somebody else, and they're not studying up on the other candidates right now either. There's still plenty of opportunity for the president to solidify this group."
Valerie Herrera, a 30-year-old insurance writer with 1- and 2-year-old daughters, said she is willing to give Obama another chance. She voted for McCain in 2008, but she feels Obama is more focused on helping middle- and lower-class families, and that Republicans tend to be upper middle-class and above and look out for their own interests.
Herrera and her husband, who live in Apopka, Fla. sold one of their cars to save money and now get by on one. She says the economy is her most important issue. But she doesn't blame Obama.
"He is trying. He's trying to do the best that he can with what he was given," Herrera said. "He really is trying to understand what the everyday person is going through."