Wooing the single woman vote

With fewer married women available to vote, single women could decide next year’s presidential election

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor at AlterNet.org.

Meet the single woman, breadwinner, cultural icon and the star of every liberal’s dream of regime change. Whether she is a divorced waitress in Harlem, a welfare mom in Iowa, or that thirty-something singleton sipping a Cosmopolitan at your local bar, the unmarried woman may hold the fate of the 2004 elections in the palm of her hand.

“Unmarried women, given what they think and feel, are the group with the greatest potential to be agents of progressive change in this country because of their size, their desire for change and their record of under-voting,” says Page Gardner, manager of the “Women’s Voices Women’s Vote” project.

Never-married, divorced or widowed women constitute a whopping 20 percent of the electorate and 42 percent of all registered women voters. In the 2000 elections, they represented the same percentage of the electorate as Jews, blacks and Latinos combined. In terms of voting muscle, few can compete with the girl power of this constituency.

They overwhelmingly vote Democrat. In fact, when viewed strictly in terms of percentage points, Bush led by one point among married women in 2000, while unmarried women preferred Al Gore by 31 points.

The liberal tilt among unmarried women voters is less a matter of feminism than economics. Chris Desser, who heads the Women’s Vote project, says unmarried women’s politics are shaped by their position as the sole breadwinner.

“From an economic perspective, they make less money, and they’re living much closer to the edge,” she says. “They’re just one income away from disaster if anything were to happen.”

Their precarious position in the U.S. economy makes them more responsive to core Democratic messages about health care, job security and retirement benefits.

Less susceptible to appeals based on national security, unmarried women remained unimpressed with Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, even as the rest of the nation swung right. In the 2002 mid-term elections, 56 percent of married women voted for the GOP compared to a mere 39 percent of unmarried women. According to Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, “This group is distinct from the overall electorate. They are very economically sensitive, and very Democratic.”

Greenberg argues that the progressive bent of unmarried women goes deeper than just their marital status. Rather, they reflect deeper changes among women in general as a result of long-term cultural and demographic shifts.

“This group of unmarried women is very distinct from unmarried women in previous generations,” she says.

While the shift to the left is partly due to increasing education levels and the women’s movement, it is also a function of divorce. She says, “Women who get divorced are really transformed politically in a lot of ways. With the divorce rate at 50 percent, that has a huge impact on women.”

As a group, unmarried women are also younger than those in the ‘50s, making them less attracted to the social conservative agenda of the GOP. And there is evidence to suggest that these women are unlikely to turn Republican even if they do acquire a wedding ring some time in the future or even as they grow older. In the long run, if these women remain liberal, irrespective of their marital status, the so-called “marriage gap” may begin to shrink.

All of the above is music to Democratic ears, especially with the presidential elections around the corner. But here’s the catch: voter turnout. Page Gardner, who manages the Women’s Vote project, describes single women as “the single largest demographic group of non-voters.” Although single women comprise 46 percent of all eligible voters, only 42 percent of them are registered to vote. And of those registered, only 52 percent actually voted in 2000. Sixteen million of them did not register to vote in 2000, and 21-plus million never made it to the polling booth on Election Day.

A higher turnout rate among unmarried women could have proved decisive in the 2000 elections, when only 43 percent of single women turned up at the polls, compared to 62 percent of married women.

Research conducted by the Women’s Vote project reveals a stark picture of political alienation. The top three reasons cited by survey respondents for not voting: Politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t understand it; politicians don’t listen to people like me; politics and elections are controlled by people with big money and big corporations. In other words, the constituency most affected by government policies—be it on retirement benefits or prescription drugs—also feels the most powerless to change them.

“These women are not uneducated about politics or the effect of policymaking on their lives, but they feel that they don’t have a voice,” says Desser.

And why should they, when politicians are reluctant to even acknowledge their existence? With the national political debate saturated with rhetoric about American families, talking about what is good for single folks can seem hazardous.

“If you speak to single people, you open yourself to charges that you don’t support family values,” Teixeira says. “Democrats already have enough trouble with that.”

But to duck the challenge is not a wise option for either party. As the cover story of Business Week published in October declares, we are on the verge of becoming “a nation of singletons.” The nuclear family, with its requisite Mom, Dad and kids, invoked as the cultural norm, actually accounts for only 25 percent of all American households today. Married people, who once made up 80 percent of the population, now account for only 50.7 percent.

These differences become even more significant at a time when the nation is politically divided—a schism that was glaringly apparent in the 2000 elections.

“Because we’re in a 50-50 country in terms of red and blue, there will be more and more narrowcasting in 2004, targeting of messages at different groups,” Greenberg says.

The aim of the Women’s Vote project is to take the first step toward helping single women realize their immense political clout in 2004. The project, which has a high-powered advisory board of pollsters like Greenberg and Celinda Lake, is offering its research into this pivotal constituency for free for any voter registration effort, irrespective of party affiliation.

“We have to help these women understand that, in fact, size matters. They can absolutely determine the outcome of the election," Desser says. In other words, the future of America may lie in the hands of its burgeoning population of single women—but only if they show up at the polls.