Unmarried, Female and Turned Off by Politics
Adriana Maza is an articulate 23-year-old nanny who hopes one day to attend medical school. She has dabbled in grass-roots politics, has opinions about the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the presidential candidates and even considers herself a feminist.
But she does not vote.
“I guess I don’t really feel like there’s much of a choice,” she said. “Until I feel there is a candidate who really represents my views, someone who can represent something positive, I don’t feel compelled to vote.”
In this, she is part of a larger phenomenon. According to pollsters, when single women are compared with married men, married women and single men, they account for the largest number of Americans who are, in essence, voluntarily disenfranchised. More than 21 million single women -- almost half of those eligible -- did not cast ballots in the last presidential election.
Although each election cycle brings its catchy, pollster-coined demographic fad -- soccer moms, waitress moms, NASCAR dads -- no one has systematically studied the “single woman” vote until recently. The group, which encompasses women who have never married, are divorced or are widowed, has seemed too diffuse to lump into one electoral niche.
“This population of single women covers a lot of categories, across race, across ages, across incomes, so ... it’s more complicated to make a broad statement about these women,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Because of their large numbers, she added, they have “the potential of changing the outcome of an election, particularly in a close race.”
With the country politically polarized and polls showing a virtual dead heat between President Bush and his presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the November election will be hard-fought and probably cost record-breaking sums. Although some think the side that best energizes its base will win, others argue that the key to victory is identifying and motivating voters at the margins -- the undecided and the previously unengaged.
Many analysts predict that registering single women -- and then getting them to vote -- could result in a big payoff for Democrats.
As a group, unmarried women tend to have liberal views on social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights, pollsters say. When single women vote, they generally vote Democratic.
This was what struck Page Gardner after the 2000 election. A liberal political activist and consultant in Washington, Gardner decided to examine exit polling data, census data and a variety of public opinion studies. “I thought everyone was sort of missing the point in terms of the post-election analysis,” she said.
As she began crunching numbers with her husband, Ron Rosenblith, a political consultant and former aide to Kerry, she discovered that single women and men were not registering to vote in numbers that reflected their proportion of the population.
“We looked at demographic changes in this country, and it became clear that more and more unmarried men and women were not participating in the process,” Gardner said. “Heads of households are becoming increasingly unmarried. In the 1950s, 80% of households were headed by married people, now it’s a 50-50 split. There is a whole growing group of people on the sidelines of our democracy. The numbers literally jump out at you.”
For Gardner’s purposes, it was the single women who were of particular interest. Had this group voted in the same proportion as married women in the 2000 election, she discovered, an additional 6 million votes would have been cast around the country (including an estimated 202,000 in Florida, which Bush carried by 537 votes).
With Christina Desser, a political strategist and environmental lawyer in San Francisco, Gardner launched Women’s Voices, Women Vote, a legally nonpartisan effort.
The group hired the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. to conduct a national survey last fall on the voting attitudes of 1,036 single women under age 65 -- whom it dubbed “women on their own.” The firm also convened focus groups in three demographically diverse states -- Missouri, Florida and Washington -- to help figure out how to encourage single women to vote.
“The challenge is to craft a message that reaches subgroups in this population,” Mandel said. “Clearly, the message to a woman in her 20s, a recent college graduate looking for a job in New York City, is going to be different from the retired widow who is concerned about Medicare and Social Security.”
However, despite such diversity, said pollster Anna Greenberg, “One of the most surprising things is how homogenous they are” in their thinking about politics.
“Healthcare was the biggest issue -- this is a major source of stress for them,” Greenberg said. “Younger women tend to be a little more worried about education; for older women, they tend to worry about retirement. Overall, they are consumed by their own economic security.”
In the survey, 65% of single women said they viewed the country as “seriously off on the wrong track.” (During the same period, 50% of all respondents to The Times Poll agreed with that statement.)
Many single women are alienated from the political process, Greenberg said, because they don’t see connections between elections and their own lives. Or they think their votes don’t matter.
Maza, the nanny, said she was turned off to politics after Seattle residents voted against a major sports venue and the stadium was built anyway. “That’s the perfect example where people obviously don’t want something and it happens anyway,” she said.
Many single women have a skeptical, if not cynical, view of the way government works. “Over and over, they used expressions like male politicians have never walked in their shoes,” Greenberg said. “The spontaneous use of that phrase was rather interesting.... The whole challenge is to get them to see they have a stake.”
Take, for instance, Belinda Rogers, an unemployed single mother waiting at a downtown Seattle bus stop recently when a local citizens group was registering voters. Rogers, 45, emphatically declined to sign up.
She has no time for politicians. “The ones on the top of the ladder should come down to the bottom of the ladder to see what it’s really like,” she said before hopping a bus to school.
Sometimes, Greenberg said, single women simply don’t feel informed enough to choose among candidates. This view was expressed by Heather Reuble, 25, a single massage therapist walking briskly down Seattle’s Union Street. She did not stop when she was approached to register. “Why don’t I vote?” she repeated, when asked. “Good question. I know I should. I choose not to. It’s really intimidating.”
Single women are not “enthusiastic” about the war in Iraq, Desser said, but they are not consumed by it either.
Abortion was not a primary concern, the survey found. “I don’t want to minimize how important choice is to these women,” Desser said, “but I think it has long been believed that that’s the only issue used to mobilize women, and the fact is that issues that mobilize women are not that different from issues that mobilize men.”
Gardner said one of the most striking findings in the focus groups was the reaction single women had when they learned that there were so many of them. “A light bulb went off. They got that if they participated, they could literally change the course of the nation.”
This was the logic that motivated Regina Owens, a divorced Seattle mother, to begin voting recently after a nearly 20-year hiatus. “I really felt like it didn’t matter,” said Owens, 43, who is an independent. “The corporate honchos, the policymakers ... I just felt like, well, they go do lunch and talk among themselves and make deals.”
When a canvasser from a citizens group came to her door in 2001 and asked Owens to get involved in an effort to stop cuts to food stamps, she said she suddenly understood the connection between voting and her life. “I felt like I was personally affected. I had always wondered, what can I do to make a difference? I wasn’t voting, so that wasn’t helping.”
Since then, she has become a volunteer with Washington Citizen Action, has personally registered 47 others and is looking forward to voting in her first presidential election in many years.
Women’s Voices, Women Vote is compiling lists of single, voting-age women in 12 states. Some, such as Florida, Ohio and Missouri, are considered swing states. Others, such as South and North Carolina, are not. In each state, however, more than half of heads of household are single and there is a significant difference in voter registration between married and single women.
Desser said Women’s Voices, Women Vote has amassed about $1 million of the $3 million it hopes to raise. According to the group’s website, funding has come from the Heinz Family Foundation (part of the Heinz Family Philanthropies, which is chaired by Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry); the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org; and the Bauman Foundation, known for its environmental focus. Heinz Kerry’s chief of staff, Jeff Lewis, is on the advisory committee, as are Democratic activist John Podesta, the Ms. Foundation’s Marie Wilson and Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women.
Although Republicans are not specifically targeting single women, they are refusing to cede the battle over their vote.
“We’re definitely reaching out to register women,” said Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “But we’re not focusing on one demographic group.”
This week, the Bush reelection campaign is launching a program called “W Stands for Women.” The volunteer effort by women around the country will “communicate the president’s message and record of achievement, especially on the issues that women care most about -- making America more secure, strengthening the economy, making healthcare more accessible and more affordable,” said campaign spokeswoman Ali Harden.
The Democratic National Committee has a similar program aimed at helping Kerry.
Ultimately, Desser said, the effort to reach single women is not just about one election, it’s about civic engagement: “This is about how you make voting part of the culture within which these women live.”
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The voting gender gap
Women traditionally vote in greater numbers than men, but a huge bloc of single women steered clear of the ballot box in 2000. Several groups are working to encourage more turnout by single women in this year’s presidential election.
2000 election voter turnout
186.3 million eligible* voters
60% voted (110.8 million)
53.5% women (59.3 million)
46.5% men (51.5 million)
A closer look at eligible voters, broken down by marital status:
44.8 million single women:
52% voted (23.4 million)
48% did not vote (21.4 million)
Al Gore (D) 66%**
George W. Bush (R) 30%
Ralph Nader (G) 4%
34.9 million single men:
44% voted (15.5 million)
56% did not vote (19.4 million)
52.8 million married women:
68% voted (35.9 million)
32% did not vote (16.9 million)
53.8 million married men:
67% voted (36 million)
33% did not vote (17.8 million)
*Eligible voters are U.S. citizens age 18 and older.
**Voter returns based on exit poll data.
Numbers are rounded to nearest decimal place.
Sources: U.S. census, Los Angeles Times exit poll