Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, in her book What Women Really Want, writes that over the past 85 years, America has become “women-centric.” It’s happened “almost stealthily,” and it’s affecting the voting habits of women—especially single women—across the country.
As a not-so-silent majority of women—from seniors to boomers to Generations X and Y—confront the singular challenge of recasting the nation in their image, they are shaking the culture to its core. Some grew weary of pounding at the seemingly immovable fortress of the male norm. Some gave the male norm the heave-ho altogether.
As pollsters and analysts, we’ve noticed the shifting patterns in family and work practices, lifestyle choices, and voting trends for many years. But when we probed more deeply, we discovered a fundamental new reality that statistics alone couldn’t measure. Women from all walks of life and political persuasions are saying, in effect, that they no longer define issues in accordance with male standards. Women have become the norm, and they want an America that better reflects their image.
And what is that image? Lake says, when it comes to voting, it has to do with issues that reflect women’s interests and affect them directly—and it varies from woman to woman. For many, that includes jobs and financial security, but social issues are high on the list.
Just before the election in 2012, abortion ranked at 39 percent as the most important issue for women, according to Gallup. Jobs came in second at 19 percent, followed closely by healthcare (of which birth control is a big part) at 18 percent. Education was far down the list at 2 percent, tied with Medicare and Social Security. Taxes brought up the rear at 1 percent. It’s not a surprise, then, that Mitt Romney’s emphasis on the economy fell flat among single women (and aggravated by the damaging rhetoric surrounding the social issues prior to the election).
The single woman’s desire (and some married women as well) to vote on issues that “have to do with them” is reflected in a couple of telling interviews from just before the 2012 presidential election. One is with a woman who supported Republicans in 2004 and 2008 when she was married. In 2012, she was divorced, struggling financially, and conflicted about whether to vote for Romney or Obama:
Marisa Hannum is a an abortion opponent, worried about her finances and concerned for friends who can’t find jobs. She’s dumbfounded that anyone is questioning birth control access in 2012. And she has only a glimmer of an idea of how she’ll vote in November.
“Now I am a little bit better informed. But I am really on the fence,” says Hannum, 30, an assistant restaurant manager.
For Hannum, the economy and social issues vie for primacy on her political priority list. She’s the only woman on a three-manager team at an upscale Italian restaurant in Reston. She has a red Volkswagen Jetta and bills that she alone is responsible for. She worries that gas has risen above $3.99 a gallon in Northern Virginia, and says she could not afford any kind of pay freeze or cut.
“I can barely afford life as it is now,” she says.
So what did the GOP do to appeal to this woman and others like her? Romney’s campaign highlighted his business experience and his plan to restore economic growth so women like Hannum would have more money.
And what was Hannum’s response to that message?
“I’m reading about a man who’s accomplished a lot,” she said. But she noted that his statement did not mention women, health care or birth control. “If you’re trying to win me, put something in there that has to do with me.”
Still, after listening to both the Republicans and Democrats on issues like birth control and gay marriage, Hannum became more decisive:
“Because of how I feel about some of the social issues, at this point, I would definitely vote Democratic over the Republicans,” says Hannum, though she left open the possibility that she could be swayed.
If that is so, what could sway her? Answering that question is one of the challenges for the GOP in 2014, but especially in 2016 when more single women are likely to vote (single women show up more for national elections than local; they largely sat out in 2010, which led to many Republican victories).
An article in the New York Times just after the presidential election observed that in an election focused on the economy, single women like Hannum present a complicated case.
They already earn less than married people and single men, and they have not fared well during the Obama administration. They have had a harder time than married women paying rent, getting medical care and finding jobs. While the jobless rate for married women has stayed relatively low, at 5.6 percent compared with 2.6 percent before the recession, the rate for unmarried women has risen to 11 percent, from a prerecession level of 6 percent.
Still, polling and focus groups show that single women are reluctant to blame Mr. Obama for their economic woes and tend to approve of a greater role for government in crises. Their reliance on programs like welfare, food stamps and Medicaid has grown significantly since 2007. In 2010, 55 percent of their households got some form of assistance, not counting school lunches, compared with 18 percent of married women’s households.
According to Lake, one of the problems Republicans have is the presentation of their message: It doesn’t reflect the single woman’s image; she doesn’t see herself in the message. “How many campaigns start out with an ad that shows a happily married candidate, perfect kids, and talk about the marriage tax credit?” Lake asked. “And you wonder why single women don’t turn out to vote.”
Opinion research shows that single women are not as interested in issues that have no immediate relevance to their daily lives, such as corporate tax rates or the federal debt. Tabitha Farr, 32, divorced mother of two whose income as a waitress has fallen dramatically since the recession, agreed. “Deficit?” she said. “No. I think about, ‘Can I pay for my child care this week?’”
You would think financial worries like this would motivate women like Farr to vote for the party most capable of creating greater job opportunities for them. But this doesn’t always seem to be the case. That’s because many single women don’t believe either party can create a better financial environment for them. As one woman said, when it comes to lack of money and the hope that politicians can make a difference, “We just have to deal with it.”
Democrats have capitalized on this pessimism. If single women think neither party can do anything for them when it comes to jobs and paying for child care, then the only thing government can do is secure their rights to free birth control and abortion. It’s all women have left. It’s the image they see of themselves in the political landscape. And it secures their votes.
This view is borne out by statements like those from Diane Jackson, 61, a former financial planner who is looking for work: “I don’t think a new president will do much to help the economy. But I do see Obama at least protecting us from a radical takeover on social issues.”
If Republicans are going to get the votes of women like Farr, Jackson, and Hannum, they’re going to have to (1) convince them that the GOP can, and will, create better financial opportunities for them—not just the married couple up the street, (2) persuade them that the GOP is not trying to radically take over social issues, and (3) show them that Republicans respect them as single women who want to live free and independent lives, and that the GOP—not the Democratic Party—has the best plan to help them do just that.