Single women a sleeping giant for Democratic Party

May 16, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Some of the best public service ads to run during last year's election cycle were produced by a new group called Women's Voices, Women Vote.

If you missed them or need a refresher, the best ad featured a series of cameos by women - famous, beautiful actresses like Rosario Dawson, Angie Harmon and Felicity Huffman - talking directly to the camera in sultry tones about their "first time." Despite the teasing innuendo, the women were talking about their first time voting.

Yet millions of American women - specifically, unmarried women - remain electoral virgins, so to speak. Or, if they have "done it," they've been celibate far too long.

Maybe George Clooney should be appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

The serious point is this: Unmarried women are an under-mobilized voting bloc with the latent potential to fundamentally realign American politics in the young century. In fact, despite their lower rates of participation, they have already had a big impact.

Let's work through a few facts and figures.

Whether they are divorced, separated, widowed, not yet married, or legally prevented from marrying their same-sex partner, almost half of all American women over 18 are unmarried. Soon they will be a majority.

But turnout among unmarried women - just 59 percent in the 2004 presidential cycle - was significantly lower than the 71 percent rate among married women. In the 16 states where Women's Voices ran targeted mobilization campaigns, however, the rate of increased turnout for what the group prefers to call "women on their own" was twice the rate of increase in the other 34 states.

Everybody knows Democrats fare better among women than men. But Republicans win among white women and married women.

Even in 2006, the best Democratic midterm cycle since 1974, Republicans narrowly won both groups.

The Democrats' gender gap thus derives from the party's wide support among unmarried women and nonwhite women. In fact, in 2006 unmarried women chose Democratic congressional candidates by the eye-popping margin of 66 percent to 32 percent.

Along with union households and racial minorities, these unmarried women helped the Democrats erase Republican majorities in Congress, among governors and in the state legislatures.

After the election, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted a poll for Women's Voices of 1,000 unmarried American women. They found that unmarried women are particularly motivated by "an agenda for change," specifically on issues related to health care and ending the war in Iraq.

"It is clear that these women can and should be reached," the report stated about the 20 million such women who are either unregistered or who are registered but do not vote. "By gender and marital status, they are the largest group on the sidelines of democracy, and they have an agenda that calls for major change."

Attitudes among unmarried women are hardly monolithic. Younger and minority women, who are less likely to vote, especially in off-year congressional cycles, are more concerned with education and employment issues. Not surprisingly, older women express greater interest in the war, prescription drugs and pay equity.

What unifies this emergent bloc of potentially pivotal voters is their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. They also have a dismal view of politicians and the political system: More than half say that politicians "don't listen to people like me," and almost half agree that "government doesn't do anything to solve my problems, whether I vote or not."

Social scientists call this phenomenon "low-efficacy." But Democrats should translate it into three words: huge electoral opportunity.

Page Gardner, president of Women's Voices, says the task of mobilizing unmarried women is pretty straightforward.

"We have reams of data that `women on their own' can be registered very cost-efficiently and turned out to vote very cost-effectively - if a trusted source of information communicates with them using language they understand and delivered without political hype," Ms. Gardner wrote in an e-mail.

During his "wild and crazy guy" stand-up days, comedian Steve Martin liked to joke that he did a lot of volunteer work with unwed mothers. Whether they are mothers or not - and even though they remain under-mobilized - "women on their own" have demonstrated their ability to change the political landscape in American politics.

And that's no joke.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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