AllPolitics - TIME This Week

Desperately Seeking Lori

Bob Dole And Bill Clinton Will Do Anything To Win The Hearts And Votes Of Working Moms, But Many Of Them Are Too Busy To Notice

By Nancy Gibbs And Michael Duffy/Shrewsbury

[TIME Magazine]

(TIME, October 14) -- Swing voters hold a nation's secrets. Sometimes they are important because of what they tell us about an election. But when the race isn't even close, they are important because of what they tell us about ourselves.

Thirty years ago, the crucial voter was a white, male factory worker--urban, ethnic, patriotic--who ripened into a Reagan Democrat and started swinging the White House to the G.O.P. But in 1996 the archetype has changed: she is a suburban, conservative, Midwestern working mother, 35 years old, earns her age, finished high school, maybe some college. Between 1992 and 1996 she has swung more dramatically than any other voter; 20% of this group voted for Clinton last time; he's pulling 52% now.

And yet the lives of the voters who are deciding this race can't be read in the numbers. In some ways it matters less how much they earn than how many kids they have, less how they voted in the past than how they feel about the future, less where they live than how they manage.

In the morning they strap the baby into the high chair with a handful of Cheerios on the tray, then stay alert for the sound of his choking while they take a two-minute shower. They consider a week at their in-laws' a vacation and joke that they live at the Target store. They drive a big car not because they haul a lot of lumber but because it gives them a fleeting sense of control. Everything changes when they become parents--when life gets both richer and harder, and everything becomes a trade-off, and the self is no longer the center, and the future is no longer possible to ignore.

The campaigns are tracking this voter so closely that they can measure the "persuadability" of her neighborhood, block by treelined block. Millions have already been spent hunting for her, with an intensity matched only by her immunity to the whole effort. Campaign consultants are stalking her, the conventions were staged for her, the speeches scripted for her, the ads aimed right at her. And because she is so different from the swing voter who shaped this nation for a generation, she has miniaturized its politics into a kitchen-table bargaining session over what it might take to help her get through the day.

From there, the candidates draft the playbooks. Clinton signs a bill guaranteeing new mothers 48 hours in the hospital, one last chance to catch her breath, a last night's sleep, courtesy of the President of the United States. It's hard to find any money to put away for college, so Dole offers a deduction for student loans and a $500 tax credit per child. Mom can't be there screening what the kids watch on TV every minute, so here's a V chip. It is not the craft of politics, it's the art of coping.

To trace this political transformation, TIME set out to find a woman who could tell the story of this election by telling the story of her life. Lori Lucas lives in Shrewsbury, Missouri, an undecided voter in a bellwether town in the ultimate swing state. She is not just an archetype; she's a revelation, a spirited wreck of political contradiction. She's an unmarried mom who thinks the country is on the wrong track because the family unit has broken down. She drives a gas-guzzling station wagon because it's safe but worries so much about the environment that she collects cans at work to recycle at home and uses the same plastic-foam Diet Pepsi cup for a week. She doesn't believe in God, but believes in the Ten Commandments because "I know they're the right thing to do." And while she doesn't have time for newspapers or TV network news, she intends to do what she always does before presidential elections: head to the local library two weeks before the vote. "I pull out two weeks of newspapers and read about the issues," she says. "But I probably won't make a decision until I'm in the voting booth."

Her politics are complicated, but her dreams are not. "What I think about is my baby being safe when he is grown up. I don't want him to have to fight in a war. I don't want there to be a depression. I don't want us to be without money." She is not in control of her life, but she is in control of this election.

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