When headlines announced last weekend that the “Obama Campaign Plans Big Effort to Court Women,” they generally called a couple of particular types of women to mind. Despite the dating metaphors (woo, court, win over) she is not generally available for romance. One type, familiar from past elections, is a variation on Louise from the old Harry and Louise health care ads, a middle-aged woman sitting at her round oak kitchen table amid a pile of bills and a cookie jar. Another incarnation is the 1996 soccer mom in a minivan, president of her suburban PTA. The people who decide elections, wrote Republican consultant John Feehery recently, are the “white married women.” To his party members he advised: “listen to your wife.”
Actually, Feehery’s folksy advice is outdated. These days your daughter, or even your mistress, is the better campaign target. As married women split their votes about equally between Democrats and Republicans, they are fading into the electoral woodwork, while single women are doing what only single women can do: switch alliances, hold out for the best deal, express their outrage by suddenly going cold on a candidate who has irritated them and then warm up quickly to a new one who makes a better offer.
The single woman, or “swingle,” as pollsters are now calling her, is already one of the largest voting blocs at 55 million, and that number is growing by almost 1 million voters a year—faster than any other group of voters broken out in the polls. Last year, single women made up one-quarter of voters overall—about the same number as self-identified white evangelical Christians. And if Obama’s strategy for courting these women works long term, pollsters say, single women might actually become the Democrats’ equivalent of the evangelicals—a reliable base for future elections.
Single women are made up of two distinct blocs. The first is of young, college-educated women who are getting married later, and make up about 30 percent of all single women. Every year since 2006 the median age for marriage has risen by a year; there are more single women in their 30s now than ever before. The college-educated single women are more likely to be working, living in cities, and progressive in their views. When Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut,” he merely confirmed the views of a lot of single women that he is “the sad loud man in a small room,” as Jessica Winter recently called him.
A second, much larger group of single women don’t hold college degrees and are much harder to pin down. Even on Rush Limbaugh, these women could probably go either way. They are not necessarily progressive and definitely not feminist. These women are not unmarried because they don’t believe in family values. As Harvard sociologist Kathy Edin has pointed out, single women with less education are quite idealistic about marriage; the problem is that many men in their demographic just don’t measure up, especially in a recession, when so many men without college degrees are out of work.
When sociologists fret about marriage disappearing, this is the class of women they are talking about. Their divorce rates have stayed as high as they were in the 1970s and increasingly they tend not to ever get married at all, and tend to have children and raise them alone. They may think like Republicans but they live like a Republican’s parody of a Democrat. They struggle financially, and living alone has given them a kind of “ambiguous independence,” as Edin likes to say. As heads of their own households, they may not like being told, say, how to conduct their sex lives. “I personally have come to the conclusion that jobs and the economy are the most important issue to these women,” says Michelle Bernard, CEO of the conservative Bernard Center for Woman, Politics, and Public Policy. “But only when questions of individual liberty are not at stake. When someone starts referring to them as ‘sluts’ and no Republican comes out to say this is none of government’s business, then you’ll see them flow the Democrats’ way.”
Other Republicans have dismissed this war on women as a fleeting distraction. “Nobody thinks it will matter in a couple months,” Vin Weber, a Republican lobbyist and former congressman, told the New York Times. “I certainly don’t.” But this is wishful thinking. The rise of the single-woman voter exposes the Republicans deepest vulnerability. Republicans continue to run 1992-era family-values campaigns aimed at a base which has transformed radically over the last 20 years. Red states have the lowest marriage and highest divorce rates, while it’s the so-called “urban elites” who favor long, stable marriages. In 2008, the Census Bureau began publishing divorce rates, and it has been Alabama that shows up at the top of the list along with Oklahoma and Kentucky, while New York, California, and Massachusetts stick close to the bottom.
What Republican candidates are really missing about their base is what Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who first started tracking single women in the mid-1990s, has called the “symbols and images of politics.” Instead of acknowledging the prevalence of divorce and single-parent homes in some way, the GOP’s candidates continue to project photos and postcards of perfect Republican families, each husband matched to a beaming wife and two children—in short, the Romneys at Christmas. If you’re a single mom in Alabama struggling to work and take care of a kid alone, it can be grating to have to take in three generations of Romney perfection. “That’s not the lives of these women,” Lake says. “They are economically marginal, they are short of time, they are juggling, and hoping that one of the balls doesn’t fall on their head at any given time.”
In 2010, the presence of Sarah Palin allowed the Republicans to elide this problem. With her surprise teenage pregnancy and her Levi travails, Bristol alone was a perfect ambassador to the new red state America. And by taking culture issues off the table and focusing on household financial struggles, the Tea Party appealed to a broader range of women, leading to a new kind of “red state feminism,” as Bernard calls it. Republicans ran several successful female candidates for state office, and for the first time ever, more women voted Republican than Democratic in a congressional election. The party of angry white men was finally winning over women. But this time around, the abortion and contraceptive debate has flared up, and then Rush Limbaugh came along. The numbers aren’t trending the GOP’s way at the moment: In November, Obama was beating Romney among single women 45 to 37. In February, the split widened to 65 to 30, according to a poll conducted by Page Gardner of the Voter Participation Center.
Republican candidates, meanwhile, continue to pretend nothing has changed at their pit stops. Rick Santorum has resumed railing about gay marriage and contraceptives not being “OK.” Mitt Romney mumbled about the Rush scandal rather than denouncing the “slut” tirade. Ann Romney shared some new family photos on Pinterest. The only one benefiting at the moment is Newt Gingrich, traveling with his third wife and his children from earlier marriages, finding sympathy in, where else? Mississippi and Alabama.