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Mind the marriage gap

Pundits love a good gap. We had plenty in the last election.

One of the largest was the marriage gap, which brings together the social and economic forces that help shape the current political landscape.Pundits love a good gap. We had plenty in the last election.

One of the largest was the marriage gap, which brings together the social and economic forces that help shape the current political landscape.

The marriage gap dwarfed the gender gap in November. While the gender gap was about 14 points, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won unmarried voters by 18 points, compared to a Bush margin of 15 points among marrieds — a gap of 33 points.

The marriage gap is hardly a new feature of politics. In 2000, 71 percent of women who had never been married voted for Gore, compared to 49 percent of married women. In fact, a marriage gap has been evident at least since the early ’80s.

Moreover the marriage gap does not merely mask some other gap, as a spurious correlation. Even after controlling for the impact of age, race, income, church attendance and a host of other factors, in Election ’04 married women were 11 points more likely to vote for Bush than were singles, while married men were six points more likely to support the president than unmarried women.

Why does marriage make such a political difference?

Partly the answer lies in economics. When women become divorced or widowed, their incomes usually fall substantially. Family income also falls for divorced men, albeit to a lesser extent.

Changed economic circumstances change political dispositions. A majority of unmarried women have incomes below $30,000, twice the number of married women with incomes that low. Divorce lowers incomes and voters faced with economic dislocation tend to support Democrats.

One panel survey that interviewed respondents twice, about a decade apart, study found that every single Democratic woman in the sample who got divorced between 1973 and 1982 remained a Democrat, whereas women who were not Democrats in the early wave, but got divorced between the two surveys, were 20 percent more likely to become Democrats. Men whose divorces made them poorer also tended to become Democrats.

Of course singles come in two key types — those who have never been married and those whose marriages ended in divorce or in a partner’s death. The former are, on average, about 25 years younger than the later. Some of those younger never marrieds, particularly those with children, feel serious economic strains. Others, just beginning their working lives, are cultural Democrats.

Indeed, never married women are one of the most Democratic segments in the population. According to the National Election Study, 63 percent of them identify as Democrats and our data suggest about two thirds voted for Kerry. Half of never married men identify as Democrats, and almost 6 in 10 cast ballots for John Kerry.

Never marrieds are least likely to attend church, much more likely than average to support abortion rights and favor gay marriage. Young people generally, and single young people in particular, are among the most socially tolerant members of society.

While history suggests they may become more culturally conservative upon marriage, many of their progressive views are likely to survive a trip to the altar. Moreover, these voters are so culturally tolerant that some retrogression would not dilute their fundamental loyalties.

For reasons good, bad and indifferent, non-marriage is on the rise. Divorce, later marriage, increased life expectancy, and other forces have led to a decline of more than 25 percent since 1970 in the proportion of Americans who are married.

Though the share of the electorate that is not married rose in ‘04, single voters were still underrepresented on Election Day. They constituted 37 percent of the electorate but are about 45 percent of the nation.

Mobilizing culturally progressive or economically hard-pressed singles should be a key priority for Democrats.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.