Politics & Policy

Demography and Voting

The marriage gap trumped the gender gap in 2014.

‘The Republican party did better this year among women, young adults, blacks, Hispanics, and singles than it did in 2012, when President Barack Obama relied on the new demographic coalition that the Democratic Party has been building, made up of these groups, to help him chart a path to the presidency for a second time,” W. Bradford Wilcox points out in “Minding the Marriage Gap: The 2014 Election Edition.” From Cory Gardner in Colorado “to Thom Tillis’ come-from-behind victory in the North Carolina Senate race,” this year’s election “tells us that the Republican Party can win even when demographic headwinds in the nation at large are running against the party,” he writes. Wilcox, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Below he talks to National Review Online about the significance of the marriage gap on Tuesday. — KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Political pundits and strategists have been talking a lot lately about demography and voting. Is demography destiny when it comes to voting in America?

W. Bradford Wilcox: In the 2014 election, the Republican party came out on top despite some serious demographic headwinds. Indeed, this election shows that demography is not destiny. Republicans like Senator-elect Cory Gardner in Colorado paved a clear path to victory despite the fact that Colorado’s demographics are pushing the state in a more Democratic direction.

But just because the Republicans did well in a demographic climate that is less favorable to them than it used to be does not mean that demographics do not matter. In fact, Republicans relied heavily on their traditional demographic coalition to forge a path to victory in 2014. This Republican victory, for instance, depended heavily on married voters. Married voters were much more likely to vote Republican (58 percent of marrieds voted Republican in the House elections), and unmarried voters were much more likely to vote Democratic (55 percent of unmarrieds voted Democratic in the House elections). That means, for instance, that fully 70 percent of Republican voters in the 2014 House elections were married, a noteworthy share because only half of the population is married.

The figure below from Family Studies shows how much Republican victories in the House were tied to what might be called the old demographic coalition.

Lopez: How much was the Democratic vote on Tuesday dependent on its new demographic coalition?

Wilcox: A lot. The Democrats garnered majority support from racial and ethnic minorities, young adults, women, and singles, as the figure below indicates. They just didn’t get enough support from these groups to chart a path to victory on Tuesday.

Lopez: The gender gap in voting has gotten a lot of attention, but family factors have gotten less attention. What mattered more on Tuesday, gender or marriage?

Wilcox: Marriage did. The figures above tell us that the marriage gap in House voting stood at 31 points versus a gender gap of 20 points. So marital status clearly trumped gender in the 2014 election.


Lopez: Why are married Americans more likely to vote Republican?

Wilcox: As I noted in Family Studies, one reason is that married Americans tend to be more socially conservative and religious than their unmarried peers, and that explanation has gotten a lot of attention. But I think economic security is a big factor here as well. We know that men, women, and children in married families are more likely to enjoy financial success, economic stability, and private health insurance. This means that married adults typically pay more in taxes and depend less upon the government for their financial welfare. These financial factors, then, probably help to explain why marrieds are more likely to vote Republican.


Lopez: Why are unmarried Americans more likely to vote Democratic?

Wilcox: Americans who are unmarried are more likely to vote Democratic in part because they are socially liberal. But I think the Democratic party is also attractive to unmarrieds because they are more economically insecure. Unmarried Americans tend to have lower family incomes and to face more frequent spells of unemployment and underemployment. Of course, they also are less likely to benefit from the economies of scale and kinship-based networks of support afforded by marriage. Unmarrieds tend to feel vulnerable, and the Democratic party’s support for a strong safety net is attractive to them.


Lopez: Does this mean that the Republican party has nothing to offer single, childless adults, single mothers, or other adults living outside of marriage?

Wilcox: Not at all. I think the opportunity agenda being pioneered by Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, Paul Ryan, and others has a lot of promise in appealing to Americans who aren’t married. Doing more to promote education reform, health-care reform, an expanded child tax credit, and an expanded earned-income tax credit to reward work on the part of childless adults should make the Republican party more appealing to Americans across the demographic spectrum. An opportunity agenda like this would also make it easier for many Americans to get and stay married, insofar as it would lift the economic fortunes of many poor and working-class Americans.


Lopez: How is all this connected to your new study, For Richer, For Poorer? Anything you most especially want policymakers to know?​

Wilcox: The new study For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America, which Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute and I just completed, suggests that strong families provide one important route to economic success and security in America. Children who come from intact, married families in America are more likely to flourish later in life in today’s competitive workplace. And adults who get and stay married enjoy markedly higher family incomes than their peers who have children out of wedlock or get divorced. The health of marriage in America is connected to the health of the American Dream.

So one big takeaway in our report is that public policy should not penalize marriage. And the unfortunate fact is that today many of our means-tested welfare policies aimed at lower-income families end up unintentionally penalizing marriage. These penalties should be eliminated or minimized. At the very least, government should “do no harm” when it comes to marriage and the family in America.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.

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