Erased: Single Women, a Key Voting Bloc, Are Getting Ignored
Single women could decide the election. But no one is talking about them.
Posted March 3, 2020
The first article I ever published about single people was a 2004 op-ed in the New York Times, "Sex and the Single Voter." I mocked the condescending ways the media, the pollsters, and both parties were talking about single people—especially single women.
Kellyanne Conway, for example, who was then a pollster, offered this advice to single women to motivate them to get to the polls: "Pretend it's a hair appointment we would not miss." A reporter on CNN asked a young, successful single woman whether it was "scary" to think about politics. Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC until just recently, berated Ralph Nader, claiming that he was less mature than George W. Bush because Bush had married, and Nader had not. He told Nader that he had "a life that's about as responsible as what's on the movies tonight."
It is 16 years later. I don't have a long list of patronizing quips to share with you from this presidential primary season. Something different is happening this time—single voters are getting ignored. Voters who are unmarried—whether divorced or widowed or always-single—have been erased from the landscape. They are almost entirely missing from candidate platforms, candidate rhetoric, polling results, and media conversations.
Other voting blocs are getting tons of attention. Persons of color, so central to the Democratic base, are among the voters who are taken seriously, and appropriately so. In addition, countless investigations, focus groups, and think pieces dig deep into the psyches of Trump voters, especially those who once voted for Obama.
Within the past few weeks, the New York Times and the Washington Post spotlighted two other constituencies. One article pointed out that the working class does not just include men in factories—domestic workers such as housekeepers, nannies, and home health care workers are important, too. The other was a very lengthy piece on white, suburban women in the South.
The Folly of Ignoring Single Women Voters
The reason the candidates—especially the Democratic candidates—should be appealing to single women is the same reason I pointed to in 2004: They vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. For example, in 2016, nearly twice as many single women voted for Clinton as for Trump, 63 percent vs. 32 percent. In 2012, 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama instead of Romney.
Single men have favored the Democrats in recent Presidential elections, too, but by much smaller margins. Married men, in contrast, have reliably favored the Republican candidate. Married women are not consistent.
A new incentive has emerged since 2004 when there were more married women than unmarried women eligible to vote. By 2016, their numbers were about equal, and by 2018, there were more voting-age single women than married women—59.7 million compared to about 59.1 million.
Erased from Platforms
If any of the candidates had made a big play for unmarried voters, I would have heard about it. But maybe these voters do show up in a place that matters—candidates' platforms. I looked into that.
For each of the candidates remaining in the race, as of the time I was researching this article, I searched for their name together with the terms "marital status discrimination" and "appeal to single, unmarried voters." I found no relevant policy proposals from Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump.
Only one of the major remaining candidates explicitly mentioned marital status discrimination—Elizabeth Warren. Her multi-pronged plan for improving housing includes this:
Single voters—both men and women—are erased rhetorically when candidates vow to fight for "working families." That phrase is both exclusionary and nonsensical, and it is used by one candidate and political leader after another. I explained that in detail previously, so I will not reiterate it all here. I hope one point is obvious—it would be so easy to speak in ways that include everyone.
Erased from the Polls
I have yet to read or hear about a major poll from the current Presidential primaries that reported results by marital status. To see whether I may have missed anything, I searched for terms such as "single unmarried voters" and "marital status" at various websites associated with organizations that conduct or sponsor polls. They included CNN, Fox, Gallup, Marist, Monmouth, Morning Consult, Reuters, Suffolk, and YouGov.
Women's Voices Women Vote has done important work on single women voters in the past. Currently, the Voter Participation Center is focusing on what they call the "Rising American Electorate," comprised of unmarried women as well as people of color and young people. I'm drawing from their research in this article, but they do not seem to be getting much attention elsewhere.
Erased from Major Television Media
I searched for stories about single or unmarried voters on the websites for ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and NBC. Again, nothing. The closest approximation was an article on the Fox website, a year ago, assuring me that Cory Booker and Rosario Dawson are "very much in love."
Single People Don't Vote at the Same Rate as Married People, So Why Bother?
Candidates who ignore unmarried voters do have one legitimate excuse: Single people—both women and men—consistently vote at a lower rate than married people. For example, in 2018, only 48 percent of the unmarried women who were eligible to vote, and 41 percent of the unmarried men, actually did vote; for the married women and men, the numbers were 62 percent and 61 percent.
Instead of viewing that pattern as a reason to ignore unmarried voters, candidates could instead see it as an opportunity to recruit massive numbers of new voters. That's how the Sanders' campaign is approaching young people—another demographic segment that is notorious for its low rates of voting.
The Irony: Several Candidates Have Relevant Biographies
The irony of the erasure of unmarried voters is that, on the basis of candidates' biographies, this season could have been a break-out moment. When the primaries first began, the Democrats offered a dazzling array of candidates leading nontraditional lives. For a brief moment, things seemed promising. For example, Jessica Goldstein at ThinkProgress wrote a terrific article, "America hasn't elected an unmarried president since 1884. Is that about to change?"
Even after so many candidates have dropped out, three who are remaining have relevant biographies. Mike Bloomberg, who has lived with Diana Taylor for nearly 20 years, is "happily unmarried." Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden both were single parents; they point to those times as particularly meaningful parts of their lives.
Warren and Biden, especially, unsheltered by wealth when they were single, could credibly say to unmarried voters: I know what it is like to be shut out of all the benefits and protections available only to people who are married. I know what it is like not to have a back-up income from a spouse in case I lose my job and not to have access to health insurance from a spouse's plan if I have trouble affording my own. They could point out that single people are disadvantaged in the tax code, and that the Trump tax cuts have only made things worse. And they could vow not to let marital status stand in the way of full rights and protections, as Warren has done with regard to housing.
What Should the Candidates Say to Unmarried Voters?
Candidates need to learn what matters to voters who are not married. Pollsters often ask voters about their priorities; they can help by reporting their results separately for the unmarried and married participants. Reporters can conduct investigations of the unmarried electorate and convene some focus groups, too.
Candidates could then start to take unmarried voters seriously by saying three things:
I see you.
I know you.
I am asking for your vote.
[Note: This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE) with the organization's permission. The opinions expressed are my own.]