They are a Democratic candidate's demographic dream:
• Already, there are tens of millions of them, and each time the Census Bureau issues a new report, we learn that their numbers have swelled still again.
• Their voting potential is not fully tapped. Far from it. Millions among them have not made a habit of voting in the past.
• Most of them believe what Democrats believe and want what Democrats want. Left-leaning candidates have a chance to sign them up not just for one election but for years or even decades of future elections.
It is time to include them in the conversation and ask for their votes.
I'm talking about adults who are single. Counting people who are divorced and widowed, along with those who have always been single, there are about 92 million of them eligible to vote.
Single voters play favorites, and their favorites are Democrats. There are more single women than men, the women are more likely to vote, and they are especially likely to vote for the more progressive candidate. In 2004, for example, they favored Kerry by 26 points over Bush. Except for African Americans, no other major demographic showed such a resounding preference for Kerry - not Hispanics, not women (of all marital statuses), and not even union households.
In their values and their appraisals, single women are on the leading edge of where the country is already headed. Currently, for example, 77% of both married and unmarried women believe that the country is on the wrong track. But single women got there first. In November of 2006, 66% of single women, compared to just 54% of married women, thought that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Single women were on the vanguard in their disapproval of the Iraq War, too.
SINGLE VOTERS: NOW WE SEE THEM, NOW WE DON'T
In 2004, single women were the trendy new demographic, knocking soccer moms and NASCAR dads off the block. Predictably, they were dubbed the "Sex and the City" voters. CNN called them the "lipstick liberals" in a stunningly condescending segment in which one single woman was approached by a CNN reporter asking her if it was "scary to think about politics." The piece also included advice for singles to get to the polls on election day by "pretend[ing] it's a hair appointment we would not miss."
Fast forward to four years later, on the day before the Pennsylvania primary. CNN introduced a new segment on single women voters by forgetting that they or anyone else had ever noticed this demographic before. Here's their tease: "It used to be the soccer moms, then it was the married moms. Now it is the unmarried, young women voters, who are really key."
The 2008 version was a big step forward from the earlier edition. Rather than focusing on single women's lipstick and how scary it was for them to think about politics, CNN this time recognized that the economy can be a particularly pressing issue for people with one paycheck - a check that, by the way, is smaller than men's by nearly half - and a pile of bills.
CNN also noted that single women are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, and pointed to a recent claim that "unmarried women will be to progressives what the evangelicals were to conservatives and ...[they] will determine the future of this country."
The piece ended with the question, "Do you think the candidates are listening?"
I listened all day and all night as the exit polls and then the results from Pennsylvania rolled in. I have continued to listen in the nearly two weeks that have followed. I have yet to hear any report about the voting of single women in the Pennsylvania primary. Like the cute animal videos that are aired so regularly, segments on single voters are hyped one day and forgotten the next. (Single voters, though, do not get nearly as much attention as furry bears.)
At least CNN recognized single voters for a day. Where's everyone else?
WHY HAVEN'T MORE SINGLES VOTED IN THE PAST?
One small part of the lower turnout rate for single voters is practical. Three percent of single people said they did not vote in 2004 because of transportation difficulties, compared to just 1% of married people.
If we were to believe the stereotypes, we might think that single people don't bother to vote because they just don't care about politics. Reality begs to differ. Asked why they didn't register to vote in 2004, married and unmarried adults gave mostly similar answers. Here's one of the exceptions: Forty-eight percent of married people said they were not interested, compared to 45% of single people.
So singles are interested in politics, but too many still don't vote.
WHAT'S A DEMOCRAT TO DO?
I'm a social scientist at heart, so I think that drives to register single voters need to be road tested first. The ideas that I would put to the test include some simple, non-controversial, and totally cost-free ones, as well as more challenging possibilities.
First, the easy stuff.
Democrats sometimes describe their positions - even when those positions are actually singles-friendly - in a way that excludes people who are single. Their language is marginalizing even when their plans are not. Here are some examples.
1. Consider the Issues section of Barack Obama's website. The candidate wants to "Support Working Families" and "Help American Families Stay Healthy." But employers don't hire families (infants aren't all that great at heavy lifting); they hire workers.
My guess is that Obama wants all Americans, and not just the ones ensconced in traditional families, to stay healthy. I wouldn't have to guess if he had simply said that he wants to "Help Americans Stay Healthy." That version includes all 92 million single people, without excluding any families.
2. Similarly, Hillary Clinton, on her website, boasts of an economic blueprint that includes "Lowering taxes for middle class families." I think she should promise to "lower taxes for the middle class."
(As for McCain, his website includes the sort of platitudes about "one man and one woman," and "the foundation of Western civilization" that, to professional anthropologists, are probably as laugh-worthy as any of David Letterman's "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.")
3. There is a snippet of Obama's stump speech that seems particularly powerful. It goes something like this:
"We can continue to slice and dice this country ... or this time, we can build on the movement we started in this campaign, a movement that's united Democrats, independents, Republicans, young, old, rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight. Because one thing I know, from traveling 46 states this campaign season, is that we are not as divided as our politics suggest."
Why not add "single, married" to the list?
4. Recently, NBC Nightly News showed Michelle Obama as she said: "Our hope is that when we get into the White House that the White House will be a place where children and families will become the core of everything that happens out of that building." Does she really mean to imply that single people and even married couples without children will be marginalized in an Obama administration?
Talk to us, Michelle and Barack and Hillary and all of your surrogates. We single people (well, most of us) are rooting for you. Are you rooting for us, or are we invisible to you?
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
I think there are two problems (at least). Paeans to marriage and family feel safe and comfortable and familiar. Who can resist that image on the homepage of the Obama website - Barack with Michelle right beside him, while one daughter hugs him and the other is curled up on his lap? Personally, I look at that picture (I HAVE to look at it to enter the website) and say, "Don't ask me to vote for you because you are married with children." But that comes after my first reaction of feeling smitten.
So I'm not suggesting that candidates dispense with the sentimental favorites. But they can convey, in their words and in their images (and of course their actions - more on that later), that they value all Americans, and all of the important relationships in our lives. Consider, for instance, the 3-generational images of Hillary on the stump with mom and Chelsea: They bring singles in without leaving traditional families out.
I think another powerful image would be of the candidates with friends who have been in their lives for decades. Sure, the spouses can stand by the candidates' side, but I'm not impressed - they are under contract. Show me, candidates, the people who have been there for you, and you for them, from long before you married. They are the people who could walk away from you at any moment, no questions asked - but they don't.
The second problem - for both the candidates and the media - is that they don't really know how to think about people who are single. The 2004 image was Carrie Bradshaw - all about lipstick and shoes and hairstyles and jewel-colored cocktails.
That's been supplanted this time around with the concept of the single woman as especially challenged by a difficult economy. That's more realistic and more serious - even if the single woman CNN highlighted was an attorney.
Still, if we focus exclusively on the challenges of living single, we risk perpetuating a caricatured deficit model of single people. The stick-figure single woman is defined in terms of what she does not have (a husband and the second paycheck that comes with him). She is a stereotype - an incomplete person who "doesn't have anyone." The facile "just get married" bromide comes too readily to mind as a solution.
In fact, though, the more we learn about single people, the more we realize that people who are single are rarely alone. John McCain urges us to recognize the vital role of the family (with the union between one man and one woman at its helm) "in shaping, stabilizing, and strengthening communities." But research shows that in important ways, it is the single people of America who are doing the work of maintaining community and intergenerational ties.
Singles are more likely than married people to help, encourage, and spend time with their neighbors and friends. They are also the ones who more often visit, support, advise, and contact their siblings and parents.
The greater financial, emotional, and practical help that singles give to their parents (relative to their married siblings) cannot be explained by time demands, resources or needs, or other demographics or extended family characteristics. Even when all of those factors are the same for adult children who are single and those who are married, it is still the singles who help their parents more.
Although single people are investing in the care of the important people in their lives, such as friends and neighbors and siblings and nephews and cousins, those efforts are rarely recognized or supported by current laws, policies, or practices. Analogously, the friends, siblings, cousins, and others whose lives are linked in important ways to single people are not helped in their efforts to care for those single people.
Take the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example. A married person in an eligible workplace can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a seriously ill spouse. A single person in the same workplace cannot leave to care for a sibling or cousin or neighbor or friend. Nor can any of those people take leave from their workplaces to help the single person when that person is in great need of care.
Current laws and policies privilege people who are married. But as legal scholar Nancy Polikoff argues in her book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, the needs for care and protection are not unique to people who are married.
SPEAKING TO SINGLE CITIZENS MEANS SPEAKING TO ALL CITIZENS
I see signs that both Democratic candidates are beginning to acknowledge that we need to value all of our important relationships, and not just our ties to a spouse or our own children. Hillary Clinton, for example, promises to prioritize the issue of "providing meaningful support to households, called 'kinship care' families, where grandparents and other relatives are raising children."
Barack Obama said this in his Iowa victory speech:
"Hope is what I saw in the eyes of the young woman in Cedar Rapids who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill ... Hope is what I heard in the voice of the New Hampshire woman who told me that she hasn't been able to breathe since her nephew left for Iraq."
The Democratic candidates are recognizing the important place of sisters, nephews, grandparents, and other relatives in ALL of our lives. Now they need to translate their concerns into actions.
--Bella DePaulo is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After
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A FOOTNOTE ABOUT CLINTON VS OBAMA:
My concern here is with Democrats, and how they can more effectively recruit a demographic that is already on their side. As for the question of whether singles favor Clinton or Obama, here's what I can tell you.
In early March, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft posted detailed exit polling data summarizing the results of the relevant primaries up to that point. The single women split their vote evenly between Clinton and Obama (48% to each). Not so for the single men: They posted a 19-point difference favoring Obama (57% vs 38% for Clinton).
Single men, though, comprised just 15% of the primary voters. Single women made up 25%.
A FOOTNOTE ABOUT WOMEN'S VOICES, WOMEN'S VOTE: