POLITICS

There's A Lobby For Single People -- And Its Members Are Torn Over Lindsey Graham

06/15/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is many things as a senator: a foreign policy hawk, an immigration reform supporter and a voice of relative moderation amid feverish partisanship. But as a presidential candidate, he's been reduced to one thing: a bachelor.

On the campaign trail and back in Washington, D.C., Graham seems unable to avoid the topic of his love life. This past week, his Senate colleague Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was caught on a hot mic calling him a "bro with no ho," prompting Graham, in one of the campaign's most sympathetic lines, to reply that he doesn't see himself as "a defective person."

Much of the fascination with Lindsey Graham, Single-Man Presidential Candidate, is owed to its rarity -- so odd it is for a major party nominee for president to not run with a spouse in tow. But for officials in the Single Lobby (those who advocate for unmarried people), Graham's bachelordom is more than a historical anomaly. It's a major political opportunity.

"It was so amazing to see this pop out," said Bella DePaulo, a longtime member of the group Unmarried Equality. "I have to admit I love how unapologetic he is. He says things like, 'I have a family' and 'I'm OK with me.' And I just love how he will not hide from it or apologize for it. I think that is exactly how single people should react."

On a personal level, DePaul and others in the Single Lobby aren't particularly enthused by Graham. They look at the 59-year-old South Carolina Republican and see someone with conservative social views and an off-putting penchant for believing that bombs and armed forces can cure America's foreign policy ills.

"No, of course not. Oh my gosh," said DePaulo, when asked if she'd vote for the guy. She was speaking for herself and not her group. "I really like Bernie's positions," she said, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Of course, I love Elizabeth Warren. And I like the new, more progressive Hillary. I'm a total, unapologetic lefty."

But in that corner of the political universe, standard-bearers don't come around often. Graham, for all his policy warts and longshot odds, provides the rare national stage to dispel stigmas.

"The candidates, whether they are married or single, are not speaking to single people," said Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, an information service for unmarried and single Americans. "They are not using the S-word. It is like the kiss of death or something. I don't know. I guess they feel like they don't need to because single people don't care if they use the S-word or speak to them in those terms."

America as a whole has grown increasingly single and accepting of single life. According to 2012 data from Pew, one in five adults aged 25 and older has never been married. That number was one in 10 back in 1960. Fifty percent of respondents said they thought society was "just as well off if people have other priorities" than marriage.

And yet, while the country's demographic trends are clearly moving in one direction, its politics aren't. The country has elected only two unmarried men as presidents: James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, and Cleveland went on to marry while in office. Not only do single men rarely win the White House, they rarely run for it. Ralph Nader, the famed consumer advocate who ran in 2000, has not married. But he didn't run from one of the two major political parties.

"It is still strange to me that the media makes such a big deal out of it," said Eric Klinenberg, a professor at New York University and author of the book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. "But I think a lot of voters and Republicans in particular idealize the nuclear family, and they want a presidential candidate to live up to their ideals. So there is a lot of pressure on candidates to be married and have perfect children. And clearly we like that fantasy world, even if most of us live in a messier reality."

One reason that so few single people run for the highest office, and why single-person issues aren't considered their own separate policy plank, is that single people aren't a monolithic voting bloc. Its members don't support a candidate based on whether he or she advocates for, say, equal-cost car insurance policies for married and unmarried couples. Its advocates aren't backing Graham simply because he's single.

"I think he is too hawkish," said Coleman. "He's not my type of politician."

The other reason is basically cultural.

"Marriage is such an overwhelming part of our conventional wisdom of what makes life good and it is so part of the accepted way of thinking about things that it is not challenged that much," said DePaulo. "I think that people, especially politicians, are afraid to challenge it, especially when some of the groups that need to be catered to are so strongly pro-marriage, especially in their religious views."

Graham, as a Republican, will have to cater to those same groups in his pursuit for the nomination. And because of that, perhaps, his bachelordom has become an even more prominent feature.

For the most part, he's dealt with the attention with a mix of earnestness and jokes. One day, he quips that he'll have a rotating first lady in the White House. The next he implores viewers that "if you're single, there's nothing wrong with you." And while Coleman would like to see him be more active in pushing for equal treatment for singles on items like housing policy and employment benefits, for now, it appears, Graham is content to take the questions as they come and move on.

"Sorry for not getting back with you sooner," Graham's spokesperson Brittany Bramell said when asked if the senator would be talking more forcefully about single and unmarried issues on the trail. "We're focused on foreign policy and national security."

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