Is Demography Political Destiny?

by W. Bradford Wilcox

Yesterday’s Virginia election showed, once again, that marriage matters when it comes to voting, and — judging by exit polls — as much as more heralded factors — gender, age, and education — for instance. In fact, in CNN’s exit poll, marital status was a better predictor of voting in Virginia’s race than was gender, age, and education. McAuliffe bested Cuccinelli by nine percentage points among women, but he bested Cuccinelli by a staggering 33 percentage points among unmarrieds. And Cuccinelli bested McAuliffe by seven percentage points among the marrieds. So the next time you hear about a “gender gap” in voting think instead about a “marriage gap” in voting. Because marriage is more closely correlated with partisan trends in voting than are many of the factors that garner more press attention, such as gender.

The connection between marriage and voting was nicely drawn today by Mollie Hemingway, who wrote, “The more we move away from a marriage culture, the more we move to a government culture.” This comment mystified a number of her readers, including New York Times writer John Schwartz, who called it a “non-sequitur.”

But as both Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman have pointed out, people — especially parents — who are unmarried are more likely to be susceptible to the vagaries of life. That is, they do not have as much economic, social, and emotional support from a dedicated partner; consequently, as Douthat and Krugman both contend, they are probably more likely to rely on public policies to help navigate life. If they are right, one reason that unmarried Americans are now much more likely to vote Democratic than their married fellow citizens is that they think the Democratic party is more likely to give them the economic and practical support and security they need to flourish. 

All this suggests that the nation’s ongoing retreat from marriage, more than its shifting racial and ethnic composition, could have big implications for the voting habits of Americans in the coming decades.

— W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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