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Revenge of the Wal-Mart Voters

By Ryan Sager

Live by Wal-Mart. Die by Wal-Mart. That could be the fate of the Republican Party this November if millions of government-loving voters suddenly abandon the GOP and return to their natural home in the Democratic Party.

The worst-case scenario for conservatives, however -- that's red-blooded, small-government conservatives, in case you were wondering -- would be if the Republican Party bent over backward to convince these voters to stick around.

What's Wal-Mart got to do with anything? Not a whole lot, except as a symbol of a particular type of voter: largely Southern, rural, lower-middle-class, female, socially conservative -- not big fans of tax cuts, but huge fans of government programs.

In other words, a libertarian conservative's worst nightmare.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press was the first to detect this new voting bloc's appearance as part of the Republican coalition. In 1999, Pew labeled these voters "Populists" and determined they were taking their place in the Republican Party alongside the two factions that had historically made up the conservative movement: laissez faire economic conservatives and social conservatives.

Today, armed with polling data showing a high correlation between frequency of Wal-Mart shopping and voting preferences, pollster John Zogby is trying to make "the Wal-Mart voter" the new "it" voter of 2006 -- like soccer moms and NASCAR dads before.

He's definitely on to something. And it's a big something: Weekly Wal-Mart shoppers make up about one-fifth of the U.S. population.

Zogby finds that while 85 percent of frequent Wal-Mart shoppers voted for President Bush's reelection in 2004 (and 88 percent of people who never shop there voted for Sen. John Kerry), Wal-Mart voters have turned on the president dramatically. In a poll taken earlier this month, they gave Bush a 35 percent approval rating -- compared to a 45 percent positive rating from born-again Christians, 49 percent from NASCAR fans, and 54 percent from self-identified conservatives.

Most worrying for the GOP: Fifty-one percent of Wal-Mart voters agreed with the statement that it's "time for the Democrats to take over and run" Congress -- as opposed to just 31 percent who think "Republicans deserve to retain control."

Granted, Wal-Mart voters' politics have less to do with shopping at Wal-Mart than who these people are. Fifty-seven percent of Southerners say they shop at Wal-Mart regularly, according to a recent Pew survey. Wal-Mart shoppers are also disproportionately rural and suburban, as the company is in the midst of a slow, fiercely-union-opposed push into urban areas. The correlation between cheap underwear and populist politics could evaporate as the Wal-Mart brand evolves to fit a more urban and upscale market.

But, for now, it's a useful shorthand. And Zogby's findings should be a huge red flag to the GOP.

Ever since the Gingrich revolution went off course and the GOP took a beating for instigating the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, the Republican Party has been trying to prove to jittery low-to-moderate income voters that it's not all that anti-government. Instead, it's hoped to hold these voters' loyalty by pressing their cultural hot buttons -- gay marriage, flag burning, gay flag burning, married gays burning flags -- and, after 9/11, making the (entirely reasonable) case that the Democrats are not to be trusted on national security.

But this year, voters are fed up with the war in Iraq, and other than that they're focused on the economy, immigration, health care and gas prices. None of this cuts in favor of the GOP with the Wal-Mart set. Wal-Mart voters are giving Democrats a 6-point edge as to who's better equipped to handle foreign policy, an 18 percent edge on health care and a 25 percent edge on gas prices (the parties are dead-even among Wal-Mart voters on the economy and immigration). What's more, moral values hardly rate as an issue this year, for any voting bloc.

Wal-Mart voters are simply not a viable, reliable conservative constituency. When Pew looked at the opinions of those pro-government conservatives in a 2005 study, it found that 94 percent favor a higher minimum wage, 63 percent favor the government guaranteeing health care to all citizens, and fewer than half favor drilling in ANWR. What's worst: more than half of pro-government conservatives held positive views of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This is clearly not a voting bloc that Republicans can count on in 2006 or 2008.

What's more, the type of constant cultural pandering and abandonment of small-government conservatism required to keep the Wal-Mart voters risks seriously turning off cultural moderates and the GOP's traditional libertarian-minded base -- particularly, as I argue in my forthcoming book, in the interior West, where the Democrats are eyeing libertarians as the key to a comeback.

The GOP doesn't have to abandon the Wal-Mart voters. But it either has to find a new way of wooing them or risk paying the price for courting a constituency with which it was star-crossed from the start.

Ryan Sager ( is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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