LITTLETON, Colo. — With two weeks left, the outcome of the presidential election could hinge on a relatively small group of suburban voters in swing states, who are genuinely conflicted about and often disenchanted by the choice before them.
They are people like Mark Bremmer, 50, a freelance designer who is something of a unicorn in the current political climate: An educated, informed and truly undecided voter still waiting for either side to tackle real problems in a way that feels truthful.
"What I want are common sense, pragmatic approaches to our very real problems, which are being grandstanded and marginalized by the rhetoric used to characterize them," he said recently. "I would like honest dialogue. That's what I'm looking for." Bremmer said he's leaning toward Republican Mitt Romney but remained unhappy with the lack of solutions from either side.
As a group, suburban voters are more affluent, more educated and more female than the population generally, and, although anxious about the economy, they survived the economic crash better than their fellow citizens in rural areas, better than blue-collar workers and better than city dwellers.
It's in the nation's suburban swing that President Obama and his campaign hope to build a margin that will help bring him 270 electoral votes. They believe the grass-roots organizing they initiated in 2008 — with neighborhood team leaders responsible for reaching out individually to voters, precinct by precinct — works especially well among suburban voters, who build off existing PTA, church and playground relationships. And it is here that Romney is counting on disenchantment with the president and the economy to swing voters his way.
The battle for these voters will be fought in places such as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties outside Denver, the suburbs of Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio, the Orlando area of Florida — and they are likely to, once again, shape the election's outcome in November.
Call them Panera voters, a wide swath of caramel-latte-swilling, hormone-free-chicken-munching, WiFi-surfing suburban voters in a few swing states who have experienced the economic crisis mostly as anxiety, rather than panic.
They still eat out, but they don't eat junk food, and they are looking for a bargain. On any given day, they can be found flipping open their laptops alongside their roasted artichoke turkey paninis and bowls of French onion soup at Panera cafes that have emerged all across the country as a cultural and consumer touchstone of the new suburbia.
The St. Louis-based Panera Bread is a burgeoning part of the restaurant sector called fast-casual, which has boomed during the economic downturn as people sought to find quality for less. Like these suburban voters themselves, Panera has proven somewhat recession-proof, opening nearly 300 cafes since the end of 2008, including 50 in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Colorado.
The chain has thrived on the idea that despite the recession, plenty of people are still able to pay $8 for the right kind of sandwich in warm, inviting surroundings.
People who study suburban voting patterns say change has made these areas more fluid in their political allegiances. These voters are more highly educated than average and influenced by their communities' growing diversity, a mixing of people that came with the last economic boom, as newcomers from cities pressed farther out into what was once the countryside and, in some areas, were lured from overseas by new jobs.
"These communities are places where you start to see the city gather," said Robert Lang, a demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "It's where the highways go from four to six lanes. . . . If there's a giant movie theater with 14 theaters and cars wrapped around it, that used to be a solid space for Republicans. Not anymore, and that's what's different."
But the shifting politics of such places has come mostly from the mixing of different groups with strongly held political beliefs: There are swing districts, but with increasingly few swing voters.
At a Panera cafe, it is not uncommon to find Republicans and Democrats sitting at tables near one another, each group saying they socialize mostly only with those with similar political views.
The challenge for both campaigns, then, is to find their supporters — house by house.
For the Obama campaign, their suburban strength will come from women. They believe suburban voters, particularly women, are increasingly finding Romney too out-of-touch on economics and too extreme on social issues.
They are voters like Elia Brovarone, 24, who was eating an early dinner here on a recent night before clocking in at her job at a nearby Yankee Candle store, the second of two jobs she must work to make ends meet.
Brovarone said her fiance will support Romney, and she, too, believes the Republican's got some ideas worth listening to on the economy. But she will vote for Obama, in part because of her strong support for gay and abortion rights.
"I don't doubt that both candidates want to fix the economy; I have no doubt of that at all," said Brovarone, who lives in Wheat Ridge in Colorado's key Jefferson County. "So I'd rather pick someone who has views I agree with economically but who then can also stand up for social issues that I believe in, too."
The Panera voter also suggests a hidden strength for Obama in these communities: passionate support of the Democrats' health-care overhaul from those who have tangled with the nation's complex health-care system.
To win in places such as Virginia's key Loudoun County, Romney will need to bring voters like Janet Dewey, who cast her ballot for Obama in 2008, back into the fold.
For years, the Ashburn resident considered herself a middle-of-the-road Republican, a product of her Ohio upbringing, she said over an iced tea at a Panera just off the Dulles Greenway one recent weekend. But instead of veering toward Romney this year, she's more committed to Obama than ever, in part because she believes the health-care law — derided by Republicans — was a sincere effort to bring down health costs for people not provided insurance on the job.
Her view was formed after watching her insurance costs skyrocket after she left a job at a bank following her husband's death to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
"I didn't know," she said. "I've gone from one job to the next all my adult life, and I never knew what it was like not to have insurance available to me. It's just not something people tell you."
Because of a preexisting condition, Dewey was eventually paying more than $1,500 a month for insurance for herself and her young daughter, a catastrophic plan that did not include dental or vision insurance. Only with her new job this fall as a teacher's assistant did her benefits improve and her costs drop, a situation she believes will be ameliorated with the new law.
"I feel we have to have it," Dewey said of the health-care law. "And if we don't get him back in office, we'll lose our chance for that."
Romney aides say that suburban voters, disappointed with the Obama results, are looking for a leader who will be held accountable for campaign promises. The Obama attack on Romney as out of step with the suburban desire for cooperation and competence will ring false, they say, pointing to the Republican's background working with both parties in Massachusetts when he was governor and his success in these ring communities during the Republican primary.
"They're trying to paint him as this fire-breathing dragon in those suburban counties, and it's not working," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director.
They believe Obama is especially vulnerable on issues of rising federal debt in such areas, as young parents fear leaving a broke government to their children.
And those fears are easy to find among Panera voters as well. Mark Warter, 48, owns a small remodeling firm in Loudoun hit hard during the downturn, as homeowners delayed revamping their kitchens and bathrooms.
Business is now improving, he said, but he fears rising spending under Obama.
"I just think a lot of times, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican depends on what you think of the general human condition," he said over lunch with his two daughters. "Do you think that people are going to take help and say, 'Thank you. Now I'm going to go help myself?' Or do you think they're going to get comfortable getting helped?"