Single women were supposed to be the Democrats’ guest of honor on Election Day. Excuse me, unmarried women. The party has studied unmarried women so much it knows they don’t like to be called single women.
But something wild is happening. Unmarried women are crashing the party early. In Iowa, they were 28 percent of Democratic caucus-goers. In New Hampshire, they were 22 percent of the party’s primary voters, and in South Carolina, 30 percent. Those are big numbers – for them.
“It’s exceptional given past history,” Sarah Johnson of the Democratic-aligned group “Women’s Voices. Women Vote” told me.
That history shows single women voting in dismal numbers. Only 59 percent turned out for the 2004 presidential election, compared with 71 percent of married women. For midterm elections, their participation nearly falls off the map. They normally sleep through the early political contests – the caucuses and primaries. Until now.
Democrats have huge stakes in awakening this demographic. Unmarried women make up nearly a quarter of the electorate – a bigger share than African- Americans, Latinos and Jews put together. And when they do participate, their vote is overwhelmingly Democratic.
In 2004, single women preferred Democrat John Kerry by 25 percentage points. By contrast, married women gave Republican George W. Bush an 11- point margin The Democratic Party’s big hope is that an activated single sisterhood will do for them in 2008 what white evangelicals did for Republicans in 2004.
The category, of course, covers a lot of territory. Unmarried women can be impoverished young mothers, hotshot professionals, elderly widows or college students. But these subgroups all go to the polls less often than their married counterparts. Single African-Americans, three-quarters of black women, come closest to matching their married sisters’ voting records.
Unmarried women certainly haven’t shown unity of preference in the Democratic caucuses and primaries. Young educated whites pushed Barack Obama to victory in Iowa. Older women drove Hillary Clinton’s triumph in New Hampshire, and Hispanics helped her take Nevada. And in South Carolina, black women propelled Obama to his major win.
What accounts for this burst of civic interest? One explanation is that the campaigns are aggressively recruiting single women.
Another says it’s the times. The economic insecurities haunting many struggling Americans are even darker for single women. If wages are flat, theirs are flatter. Unmarried women are more likely to lack health coverage than the population at large. A study by “Women’s Voices. Women Vote” found unmarried women less happy over the country’s direction than any other major voting bloc.
The storyline in South Carolina focused on whether black women would favor a fellow woman, Hillary Clinton, or a fellow African-American, Barack Obama. (Over half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina were African-American.) That these women might have considered factors other than race and gender – health care, for example – got little play.)
Whatever. Obama’s sizable margin of victory wasn’t the most interesting statistic here. It was the turnout numbers. More than 500,000 people had voted, an 80 percent increase from the 2004 Democratic primary.
A Democrat will eventually be anointed, and the angry dust will settle. While single women may now be splitting their affections among the Democratic candidates, they haven’t shown a similar divide between Democrat and Republican.
If the turnout by unmarried women on Nov. 4 follows the trajectory of these early contests, this group may very well elect the next president. Democrats will no doubt target single women in an energetic get-outthe vote campaign, but they may not have to send engraved invitations
Call them single. Call them unmarried. But don’t call them politically disengaged. Not this year.
©2008 The Providence Journal Co.