The XX Factor

Why the GOP Can’t Win Over the Single Ladies

Ann Romney and Janna Ryan during the third day of the Republican National Convention

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

For weeks before the convention we had been hearing about how Mitt Romney was set to endear himself to women and especially single women. But now that the ceremony is underway the Republicans can barely bring themselves to admit that the brand of single woman they need to win over even exists. 

There are two kinds of single women voters, now known to pollsters as swingles. One kind are the young college girls who have never been married and don’t have children. These women heavily favor President Obama and are largely a lost cause to Mitt Romney. The ones he should be trying to win over are the women who are divorced or never married in the first place even though they have kids. They are largely single mothers, and that’s where it gets tricky for the Republicans.

If you listen closely to Ann Romney’s speech, she tiptoes around this particular demographic without really acknowledging they are real. She mentions “working moms” who would like to spend a little more time with their children and sighing moms struggling to make ends meet and then the “single dad who’s working extra hours tonight, so that his kids can buy some new clothes to go back to school, can take a school trip or play a sport, so his kids can feel like the other kids.” There aren’t all that many single dads—only 1.8 million compared to 20 million single moms. The average single parent who is working hard to make her kids feel like the other kids is a divorced mom over 40. But in the Republican worldview, the single dad still has a pathos (makes you think: widow, responsible, goes the extra distance) that the single mom largely lacks.

In the context of a convention, Republicans seem to value every kind of hardscrabble existence—coal miner, immigrant, black grandmother denied a seat at a restaurant—except the one lived by a single mom. The party expressed its id on this subject when Pennyslvania Senate candidate Tom Smith said his daughter’s giving birth to a child while not married was something like the moral equivalent of rape. Bristol Palin, it seems, came and went and left her party no more sympathetic than before. Even she became a spokeswoman for abstinence.

Ann Romney took pains to present her marriage as a real marriage, not a storybook authored by  rich Mormons who like to weave ribbons into their horse’s tails. She mentioned the basement apartment, and her illnesses, and lonely afternoons at home with squabbling boys. But it’s not her particular marriage that gets in the way of reaching certain women, it’s her entire worldview. In Ann Romney’s world, high-school sweethearts are to be trusted, and women should give in and trust them. They do not fail women and they do not let women down, as she said of Mitt. It’s a little bit like Paul Ryan’s imaginary world where men trek off to the tire plant every day and come home and fix the screen door.

But this is not a world that Obama negated with his economic policies; it’s a world that has been slowly disappearing for decades. Most children born to women under 30 now are born to single mothers and in their world, the men are not really to be trusted and they do let people down.