Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

Singled Out

The GOP needs to reach unmarried women

Quick! Name the fastest-growing demographic group in the country between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics? Asians? Seniors, as the Baby Boomer generation ages? Not quite. According to the U.S. census, the number of unmarried women increased by 20 percent over that decade, a jump larger than that of any other cohort. They now make up a full quarter of the adult U.S. population.

If you did not know that, you must be a Republican candidate, consultant, or campaign contributor. Following another embarrassing electoral loss among women last year, the navel gazers mumbled “gender gap,” “Akin,” and “abortion” in quick succession. That is both an excuse and inaccurate. The Democrats’ contrived and cynical “war on women” strategy succeeded only because the response to it was weak.

Unmarried women have been hiding in plain sight for years. The Republican “gender gap” has always, in its essence, been a marriage gap. Even in 1984, when Reagan-Bush carried women overall by ten points over Mondale and Ferraro (a woman), 49 percent of unmarried women favored the Democratic ticket. George W. Bush garnered 32 percent and 34 percent of unmarried women against those babe magnets Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, 70 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama; in 2012, 67 percent. This fealty to the Democrats is not limited to presidential politics. In congressional contests last year, single women preferred Democratic candidates to Republicans by 69 percent to 26 percent.

While the support of unmarried women for Democrats is not new, the sheer size of this group is. And although 32 percent of unmarried women are younger than 30, the rest are not; today’s single lady has aged up, busting the stereotype that they are all just young and liberal and will grow out of it.

Pew’s analysis of the U.S. census data shows that single mothers who had never married were just 4 percent of single moms overall in 1960; in 2011, they were 44 percent. The rising average age of first marriage and the increasing number of women who remain unmarried account for part of this overall trend. In 1980, women were getting married at an average age of 22. By 1990, it was 23.9; by 2000, it was 25.1; in 2011, it was 26.5.

At 55 million voters, single women are an increasingly influential force in consumer America and in political America. Consumer America has long noticed them. From single-serve groceries to ads that cynically exploit the theme that men are dumb and unnecessary, it has invested millions into busting the spinster stigma and portraying these “swingles” as independent, ambitious, capable, and self-reliant. A number of media outlets have reported approvingly about two recent ads that show the efforts corporate America is making to court single women — one from Citibank in which a young woman and her boyfriend think about getting a diamond but instead go rock-climbing, and a Honda commercial in which a woman is asked for her hand in marriage and all the much more exciting things she wants to do flash before her eyes (she eventually accepts, but with the caveat that they do a lot of living first).

Political America is, as usual, a lagging indicator. The GOP seems to be waiting for the young to get old and the single to get married. As with any recovery, Republicans’ first step is to admit that they have a problem. Time is not on their side, as the single-female population continues to grow, but the most important issue is: A 2012 post-election survey conducted by our firm found that, among single women, “the economy and jobs” was the most important issue when deciding for whom to vote for president (29 percent). The issue of abortion was most important to only 4 percent of single women.

Being single and living on one income has tremendous implications for the way women approach politics and public policy. Many see Uncle Sam and Big Brother as welcome members of the extended family in the absence of a nuclear one. Single women are less educated than their married counterparts and are less likely to have health insurance. They also earn less: At a mean of $41,687 annually, single women make the least of all groups classified according to marital status. Among single women, single mothers are the worst off, making $23,000 a year.

#page#One of the largest potential growth markets for Republicans within the single-women group, however, is highly educated, well-compensated career women. These women don’t wait for “me” to become “we” before investing and becoming homeowners. Having chosen to decline two of the “four magic ‘M’s,” marriage and motherhood, they are likely to have the other two, mortgage and mutual fund. They also have ample opportunity to lament the incompetence and encroachment of government. They shoulder their tax and retirement burdens alone, along with the creeping cost of living. Mom and Aunt Edna often ask them to navigate the labyrinth of paperwork associated with elder entitlements; limited-government types should cheer the fact that these single woman are exposed as surrogates to the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security systems 20 to 30 years before they are eligible themselves.

The idea that a 48-year-old woman taxpayer-homeowner who has chosen to forgo marriage and motherhood cares mostly about abortion and contraception is folly. The Democrats have nothing compelling to say to this woman about the economy, health care, or retirement savings. That’s why phrases like “women’s health” and “women’s issues” get bandied about, even as what is really meant is abortion and contraception. When’s the last time you heard the phrase “men’s issues”? And when’s the last time you heard the abortion lobby talk about “women’s health” in a sense that includes cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and long-term care? There are two major political parties, but it seems that only one is willing to speak to women from the waist up.

Democrats regularly charge that Republican candidates are extreme on abortion, and, to be frank, some Republican candidates have helped shape this narrative. But the GOP should be clear that, overall, Democrats are the extreme ones. The DNC’s platform says: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.” GOP candidates need to hold Democratic candidates to this position. Does it include late-term abortions? Does it mean that Democrats oppose parental notification for those under 18? Does it include sex-selective abortions? Our firm’s data show that only 12 percent of all voters believe that “abortion should be legal for any reason at any time during a woman’s pregnancy” — but that is the position of most major Democrats. Fifty-eight percent of registered voters oppose taxpayer funding of abortion. Voters, including single women, need educating about what the Democratic party stands for.

Another opportunity lies in the fact that 39 percent of eligible unmarried women are still not registered to vote. Will Republicans reach, register, and turn out these single women or wait for the Democrats to do it? This should be a priority for 2014. Notwithstanding their electoral clout, unmarried women have proved to be unreliable in non-presidential years. In 2008, 60 percent of unmarried women voted, but just 38 percent did so in 2010. An aggressive voter-registration drive, a get-out-the-vote program, and a substantive outreach on relevant issues could produce dividends for a Republican party that has nowhere to go but up. The Democrats do a good job of turning out single women who already vote Democratic; the GOP needs to turn out the single women we can reach, with a conservative message that addresses their real concerns.

The Affordable Care Act also represents an opportunity for Republicans to make up ground with single women. Health care was the most important issue to 15 percent of single women in the 2012 presidential election. The implementation of Obamacare is already resulting in higher insurance premiums, reduced worker hours, and mass confusion. Young Americans, who tend to be unmarried, are especially vulnerable to being forced to pay more.

Part of the Left’s success in reaching voters in recent elections has been its willingness to go where voting blocs are. Republicans should be focusing on social media, college campuses, and other outlets where single women congregate (such as Match.com, rather than broadcast TV). They need to realize that simply posting an ad online or buying a media spot will not suffice. The political reality is that single women have as much allegiance to the Democratic party as do Hispanics and Asians, are greater in number, and are a major growth market. Republicans must get on bended knee and propose some serious solutions to them — or get left at the altar.

– Kellyanne Conway is president and CEO of the polling company, inc. and WomanTrend.

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