story by John McCormick
When he first ran for president, then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said in May 2007 that he wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart because the world’s largest retailer didn’t pay its workers enough.
By January 2011, first lady Michelle Obama stood with the company to announce its decision to reformulate thousands of products to make them healthier by reducing sodium and sugars.
The changed relationship between Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the first family is a reflection of the political evolution of the Bentonville-based company and the unpredictable nature of the 2012 presidential landscape.
America’s biggest private employer is becoming more sophisticated in its dealings with government, co-sponsoring events with a range of advocacy groups from business organizations to Hispanic elected officials, building a bipartisan Washington presence, and interviewing its customers on political issues. The company will also have a presence in Tampa later this month when Mitt Romney accepts the Republican Party presidential nomination, and in Charlotte next month at the Democratic Party’s convention.
“There’s a huge cost of not participating, and like it or not campaign contributions and subsidizing legislative meetings are all just the price of them being able to visit at a later date to talk about a piece of legislation that threatens them,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University in Indiana who wrote a book about Wal-Mart’s local economic impact.
For politicians, Wal-Mart’s studies of its own shoppers, most specifically “Wal-Mart moms,” provides useful intelligence about the concerns of a key bloc of voters. Polling experts define Wal-Mart moms as women with children 18 years of age or younger living at home who shop at the superstore at least once a month.
In 2008, they backed Obama before switching to support Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections. They represent 27% of women voters, making them about 14% of the electorate, according to research conducted for Wal-Mart by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, and Momentum Analysis, run by Democrats.
Their fluid voting patterns put them up for grabs in the 2012 presidential contest, making them a key area of focus for Romney’s campaign, which employs polling expert Neil Newhouse, who has researched the retailer’s customers.
Earlier this week, 10 Wal-Mart moms from the Denver area were assembled for the company’s latest focus group, where they were asked about their top issues and impressions of the candidates. Reporters were allowed to view the discussion online, access that ensured the views were ultimately heard by the candidates.
Participants, whose full names were kept confidential, used words like dissatisfied, frustrated, deceitful, unhappy and personable to describe how they feel about Obama, 50. Uncertain, greedy, slick and businessman were some of those used to describe Romney, 65.
Those gathered said they were most concerned about jobs and the economy, health care, education and women’s rights. One of the women shared her frustration about her three adult children still living with her because they can’t find jobs that pay a living wage, while others talked about being under-employed or having family members who are out of work.
The session “reminds our elected officials of what Wal- Mart moms are looking for in an elected official,” Brooke Buchanan, a company spokeswoman and former press secretary for 2008 Republican nominee Senator John McCain, said of the focus groups.
To get a sense of the political reach of Wal-Mart and its shoppers, Bloomberg News mapped the locations of more than 3,600 of its largest stores and compared that map with county-level election results from the last presidential election.
The results show there is at least one Wal-Mart or Super Wal-Mart in more than half of all U.S. counties and that Obama did better in those counties four years ago.
In 2008, Obama won 62 million votes in the more than 1,800 U.S. mainland counties that have at least one of the large-scale stores, compared with 54.7 million recorded by McCain. Combined, those counties accounted for about 90% of the total vote.
Yet in the battleground states most likely to determine the winner between Obama and Romney, the president’s advantage drops dramatically.
In eight states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia – Obama won just 39% of the almost 400 counties that have at least one full- scale Wal-Mart. Those states all switched from backing Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008.
One of the Wal-Mart counties in a battleground state is Garfield County, Colo. Four years ago, there were few places where the election was as close as it was there. Just two votes – out of almost 23,000 cast – separated Obama and McCain.
Located in western Colorado, the county has two Wal-Mart stores. Residents say the stores serve as both a social hub and a source for household essentials.
“They do serve a huge function in our community so that we don’t have to drive so far for the things we need,” said Cheryl Chandler, a real estate broker who lives in the county and plans to vote for Romney.
A decade ago, Wal-Mart had little involvement in politics and lobbying, reflecting founder Sam Walton’s policy of shunning politics. As the company grew both in the U.S. and globally, its political interests expanded into issues involving labor, trade and other matters.
Its campaign giving has also broadened and changed. In the early 2000s, checks from its employees and political action committees went mostly to Republicans. Today, it donates almost evenly to Democrats and Republicans, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Wal-Mart has boosted its Washington presence in recent years. The company spent $7.8 million in 2011 on lobbying, according to the center. As recently as 2007, it was spending less than half that much.
The retailer, which now has a presence in all 50 states, has about 15 employees based in Washington, including lobbyists and workers for the company’s foundation, Buchanan said.
Dorian Warren, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York who is co-writing a book about Wal-Mart’s efforts to expand into Chicago and Los Angeles, said the company took on a higher political profile after experiencing bruising fights with labor and other groups in the 1990s and 2000s.
“They have become a much bigger political player since the 1990s at the federal level,” he said. “They thought it was in their best interest to get politicians on their side, especially Democratic politicians. It was an effort to polish their image and fend off some of those criticisms.”