While the focus of the demographics debate has been on the increase in the minority share of the vote and its electoral consequences, just as fundamental to the discussion is the role of unmarried women in determining electoral outcomes. Particularly because their numbers and values provide a unique opportunity to grow the pool of reliably progressive voters in key states. Consider the facts:
• Unmarried women make up almost half of adult women (47 percent), up from 38 percent in 1970.
• They make up a quarter of eligible voters, a number similar in size to the number of white evangelical Protestants, the Republican’s largest base group.
• The growth rate of unmarried women is double that of married women and between 2010 and 2012, two million are expected to join their ranks.
• 19 states have a higher percentage of unmarried women than the national average (25 percent), including Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and North Carolina.
To win in 2012, progressives must hold on to minority voters and some subset of white voters. Increasing the participation of unmarried women, who as a group are 66 percent white, is key.
Survey data shows unmarried women to be consistently progressive in their values and populist in their politics. They supported Obama over McCain by a 70-29 margin.
But a more than 20 percentage point drop off in the participation of unmarried women between 2008 and 2010 shows these voters cannot be taken for granted. The economic downturn has affected them disproportionately and research finds them disillusioned and disengaged from politics.
Nearly 40 percent of unmarried women are currently unregistered. That’s why The Voter Participation Center (VPC) has started quarterly registration drives to sign-up these highly mobile (41 percent of whom moved between 2006 and 2010) Americans. Increased participation begins with increased registration.
Of course, registering voters will be a tougher job than it was in 2008 because of new and restrictive voting laws that have been passed in 14 states, laws that could keep five million Americans from voting next year according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Another challenge will be to connect the dots between what happens in Washington and in these women’s daily lives. Too many of these women have lost their jobs, their savings, their homes and health care to believe an election can make any difference at all.
No one expects the 2012 campaigns to produce a silver bullet that will fix the economy or create a million new jobs. But promoting an agenda that pushes for progress that is possible and includes policies that can improve the lives of unmarried women, including increasing the minimum wage, protecting Social Security, providing paid sick days and affordable health care that covers birth control, would enlarge their stake and engagement in the 2012 elections.
Page Gardner is President & CEO of The Voter Participation Center, a non-partisan organization dedicated to helping historically under-represented Americans participate in our democracy. Celinda Lake is a political strategist, pollster and President of Lake Research Partners.