Voters Focus on Retirement, Real Estate

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Job creation, or the current lack thereof, is getting most of the focus as candidates gear up for midterm congressional races. But there are other economic issues -- among them retirement security and real estate values -- that may be top-of-mind as voters prepare for the polls.

Concerns about retirement security are "paramount on voter's minds and will be an important campaign issue," says a recent survey commissioned by Americans for Secure Retirement, a coalition of more than 70 organizations.

"What we're seeing is major concern from voters about being able to maintain a comfortable standard of living throughout retirement," says Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the research with Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. "Of particular importance is the fact that retirement issues are resonating strongly with those who will most likely play a role in swinging November's elections -- older voters, blue-collar voters and women of all ages and political affiliations."

The survey, conducted Aug. 26-29, was drawn from a national sample of 917 registered voters.

It found that 73% of respondents expressed concern about "being able to maintain a comfortable standard of living throughout retirement." Sixty-two percent said "creating more retirement options that help retirees make sure their savings last throughout their lifetime" should be a top priority for Congress, and 45% said a candidate's commitment to addressing retirement concerns will be a "highly important" factor in how they vote.

The poll broke down the various voting blocs in which a candidate's retirement platform was "one of," "the most" or "a very important factor": voters over 50 (53%); women over 50 (58%); unmarried women (59%), Democratic women (52%); Republican women (51%); retirees (56%); African-Americans (57%); blue-collar voters (52%) and blue-collar women (56%)

Another gauge of the economy and mood of swing voters comes from a separate survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in conjunction with Momentum Analysis. That study, released in June, was titled Wal-Mart Moms: Economically Squeezed and Up for Grabs this November.

The survey, of 1,250 women voters, included 380 so-called Wal-Mart moms -- female voters who have children under the age of 18 and shop at Wal-Mart.

The survey cites the importance of this demographic by pointing out that in the "70 battleground congressional districts for this fall's election, there are 832 Wal-Mart stores and clubs" and that these women could account for up to 16% of the electorate.

This subset may not be all that easy to define or predict, however.

Roughly 71% were between the ages of 18 and 44; 67% were caucasian and 46% have a household income under $50,000. Politically, 46% describe themselves as "moderate," 34% as conservative and 20% as liberal.

Digging deeper into their political personality shows a wide-ranging span of ideologies. Seventy-five percent said they support environmental causes and groups, while 53% support the NRA. An equal number (51%) support gay rights as affiliate themselves with conservative religious groups. Forty-six percent described themselves as Tea Party supporters.

"Wal-Mart moms are the quintessential swing vote, and they have personalized the nation's economic struggles," the study says, adding that the findings reveal a group that is "cross-pressured and conflicted."

"They approve of President Obama and want to see a government that helps people rather than stays out of the way," it reads. "Yet these voters are strongly negative toward Congress and lean toward voting for Republicans in the fall."

Among the telling findings: 61% disapprove of the job Congress is doing; 42% say health care reform will "make things worse -- only 22% said better -- and 66% are dissatisfied with their current financial situation.

Asked to use a scale of one to 10 to rank their top economic concerns, 77% gave the price of energy and utilities a range of eight to 10. Other top concerns were the price of groceries (75%); health care costs (69%); not having enough retirement savings (61%); fear of unemployment/losing a job (55%); and changes in investments, including stocks bonds and mutual funds (43%).

Falling home values may also play a role, though perhaps not in the way one might expect.

Stan Humphries, chief economist for Zillow.com, a leading online real estate marketplace, was to determine the degree to which the housing bust and "epidemic of negative equity and foreclosure" is affecting local races.

To that end, Zillow created an interactive tool showing each congressional district and its decline in home values since market peak.

Zillow's analysis of the 20 markets that suffered the greatest loss in value since peak -- among them Nevada-1 (61.2%) Florida-23 (58.1%), Florida-14 (57.8%), California-43 (56.6%) and Michigan-12 (56.4%) -- found an almost even split between Republicans (nine) and Democrats (11) in office. This may mitigate efforts to lay partisan blame for the housing recession in those areas.

The party lines are similarly close in a broader measure. Congressional districts with a Democratic incumbent have seen an average decline in home values since the market peak of 24.1%, versus a 25.1% decline in districts with a Republican incumbent.

To determine the degree to which there is a relationship between a district's home value decline and incumbent performance, Zillow used research by political analysts at NBC to draw up a list of the 64 most hotly contested races and extract districts in which an incumbent was running for another term.

Layered into the study were the most recent poll numbers from RealClearPolitics.com for each district and the peak-to-current decline in home values.

The results, in districts where home values fell less than 20%, showed a clear correlation between market performance and incumbent weakness.

"But once you went over 20%, the relationship starts to fall apart," Humphries says of the counterintuitive finding.

In Ohio-1, which saw a 38.4% drop in home values, Democratic incumbent Steve Driehaus is trailing 12% behind Republican challenger Steve Chabot. Though that margin may give credence to the role home values play, other races do not. In Washington-8, Republican David Riechert is up 7% in the polls over Democratic challenger Suzan DelBene despite a 27.8% drop in home values. In Arizona-1, Democrat Ann Kilpatrick trails by only 7 points compared with a market value plunge of 36.3%. In Nevada-3, Democrat Diana Titus is a mere 3% down in the polls even though homes in her district lost 56.4% of their value.

Humphries believes the statistics reveal that other issues may dominate the dialogue in those hard-hit states. Immigration, in particular, is a hot-button issue in New Mexico, Arizona and Florida, states that dominate the ranking of largest losses.

The real estate research may also shed light on the political impact of the Tea Party. Because many of the weakest states in terms of property values are also hotbeds of Tea Party activity, Humphries theorizes that it shows they are actually evening the playing field between Democrats and Republicans.

"The Tea Party could be weakening the Republican challengers," he says. "Rather than helping one party or the other, they are actually leading to the rise of a third choice."

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