How the Single Woman Became the New Swing Voter

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 13 2012 1:51 PM

Rise of the Single-Woman Voter

The fight to win over the nation’s fastest-growing voting group—and the most misunderstood.

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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.”

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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.