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Actually, Feehery’s folksy advice is outdated.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.”