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 30-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 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 terms of voting muscle, few can compete with the girl power of this constituency.
These women overwhelmingly vote Democrat. In fact, when viewed strictly in terms of percentage points, candidate George W. 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 that unmarried women's politics are shaped by their position as the sole breadwinner. "They make less money and they're living much closer to the edge," she says. That precarious position in the U.S. economy makes them more responsive to 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 reflects long-term cultural and demographic shifts, including the rising divorce rate. "Women who get divorced are really transformed politically in a lot of ways," Greenberg argues. "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 1950s, 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 if they marry.
All of the above is music to Democratic ears, but there's a catch. 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.
A higher turnout rate among unmarried women could have proved decisive in the 2000 elections. If unmarried women in Florida had turned out in the same numbers as married women, Al Gore would now be sitting in White House.
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 are: Politics and government seem complicated; politicians don't listen to people like me; politics and elections are controlled by big money and big corporations. In other words, the constituency most affected by government policies also feels the most powerless to change them.
"These women are not uneducated, but they feel that they don't have a voice," Desser says. 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.
Ducking the challenge is not a wise option for either party. The nuclear family, with its requisite Mom, Dad and kids, invoked constantly as the cultural norm, today accounts for only 25 percent of American households. And like women, single men tend to vote liberal, though the marriage gap is much narrower. These differences become even more significant at a time when the nation is politically divided.