Can Obama Win Back Wal-Mart Moms?

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

It might be easy to dismiss John McCain's resurgence in the polls as merely a convention bounce, especially in light of the excitement generated by running mate Sarah Palin, but there's one startling shift that should be particularly worrisome to Barack Obama's campaign. In a Washington Post–ABC News survey released Monday, McCain enjoyed a 20-percentage-point turnaround against Obama among white women, going from an eight-point deficit before the Republican National Convention to a 12-point advantage after it.

McCain has reason to focus on these female voters. Going into the convention, surveys showed he was not bringing them aboard in the numbers he needed, particularly in the swing states that he must win in November. Pre-convention polls by Quinnipiac University, for instance, showed McCain with a huge "gender gap" in states like Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where his support among white women trailed his numbers among men by 20 percentage points, and in Colorado, where the spread was 30 points.

White women are always a key demographic in close races. Classic swing voters, they tend to be more pragmatic than partisan and usually make up their minds late in the race. The ones who matter most, however, are not necessarily the same in each presidential election. In 1996 they were the "soccer moms" who responded to Bill Clinton's small-bore initiatives and rescued his presidency. The white female vote was crucial to George W. Bush's victory in 2004, a year that was marked by the post-9/11 political emergence of the so-called security mom — a term, interestingly enough, coined by Joe Biden, the man who is now Obama's running mate. But where 55% of white women voted for Bush in 2004, only 50% voted for Republican candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, which was one of the reasons the party lost both houses of Congress. And as much as Palin pleases the conservative base of the party, white women were the real target audience McCain was aiming at with his surprise pick of the Alaska governor. The campaign hopes female voters will relate to her thoroughly modern and complicated everywoman story, even if they don't agree with her on the issues. (See photos of Sarah Palin here.)

The women that pollsters are watching most closely this year are different in some ways from their "soccer mom" and "security mom" sisters of those earlier election cycles. For one thing, they are slightly older than soccer moms (in their 40s and 50s) and are juggling another set of problems — how to pay for college for their kids, how to take care of their elderly parents. They are also less upscale. Lacking college degrees, they are more likely to be feeling the brunt of an array of economic problems that now includes high energy prices, rising unemployment, soaring health-care costs and housing foreclosures.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake calls them "Wal-Mart moms" and "Wal-Mart grandmas" and says they are not so much undecided as conflicted in making their choice this year. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who served as chief strategist of Hillary Clinton's campaign in its final days, agrees. "Frankly, it's because they are conflicted on Obama," he says. "They'd like to vote for a Democrat, but they're not sure Obama is the one." The Democratic nominee has not yet made the sale with these female voters, in part because they have yet to be convinced he has the experience he needs, and also because they are more culturally conservative than he is. And there could be another factor, one that is harder for pollsters to measure. "They are more racially sensitive, honestly," than younger and more educated women, says Lake.

With his choice of Palin, McCain "definitely caught their attention," Lake adds. But whether this is merely a blip or a real trend has yet to be determined. Obama strategist Anita Dunn predicts there will be a "settling effect" in the polls as the Democratic campaign brings more scrutiny to Palin's record — drawing attention, for instance, to the fact that she once actively supported the infamous "bridge to nowhere" earmark that she now claims to have turned down. At a news conference Tuesday morning in Riverside, Ohio, Obama himself dismissed the latest polling numbers and predicted that women's votes would shift again in the coming weeks as they focus on which candidate is more likely to improve the education system, provide better health care and transform the economy. "Ultimately," he said, "those are the issues I think that are going to make the greatest difference in this race."

But just in case they don't, Obama has become increasingly aggressive in challenging the GOP ticket's efforts to co-opt his mantra of change. "You can't just re-create yourself," the Democratic nominee said Monday. "You can't just reinvent yourself. The American people aren't stupid." But if he is going to win over the Wal-Mart moms, Obama is also going to have to make a stronger case for himself.