California Forum

Karen Skelton: A rising power in American electoral politics – unmarried women

American political campaigns are all about fishing in stocked streams. You go to places where you are most likely to find the largest number of loyal voters, cast out a bunch of political bait – policies, promises, payouts – and then lure them in.

In the past, African Americans, Latinos, gun owners, unionized labor, faith groups, business organizations, gay rights, pro-life and pro-choice activists, among others, have been much-coveted voting targets. But times are changing in America. The decline in marriage nationally is producing a rising power in American electoral politics: unmarried women.

New research by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in coordination with Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Voices Women Vote, details the increased importance to political candidates of unmarried women – women who are divorced, separated, widowed or have never been married.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there are a lot of unmarried women. Of America’s roughly 215 million voting-age adults, more than 56 million are unmarried women, compared to about 45 million unmarried men. That means that nearly half of all voting-age women in the U.S. – or a fourth of the entire population eligible to vote in America – is made up of unmarried women. In California, unmarried women are more than 26 percent of the state’s population, according to Greenberg’s data.

Second, it is a population growing at a jaw-dropping speed. Between 2000 and 2012, there were more than 10 million new unmarried women added to the voting pool – about a 25 percent increase in the number of unmarried women in the U.S., compared with only about a 7 percent increase in married women.

But politicians do have their work cut out for them. Up to now, unmarried women are much more likely not to vote than married women. So, while there are a rapidly growing number of single women eligible to vote, they are more elusive and hard to catch, making it even trickier and more important to figure out how to win their attention, get a ballot into their multitasking hands and motivate them to vote.

It’s not surprising that single women are less likely to vote. This year’s “Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink” reported that 1 in 3 American women lives on or over the brink of poverty – or is churning in and out of it.

Most of the 42 million women we reported about in The Shriver Report are in the workforce. We know them: They teach our children and file our insurance claims, care for our aging parents and sick friends, sit next to us in church. Still, a majority of the single women voters in America make less than $50,000 per year, and most much less than that. Many of these women are living paycheck to paycheck – one broken bone or busted car away from having to choose between putting food on the table or paying the rent. They’re working and caregiving around the clock. Time to vote? Not unless it matters at home. The Greenberg research estimates that more than 10 million unmarried women will not vote in November.

How to turn that around? Candidates are going to need to go where the single women are to get their votes – to their neighborhoods, supermarkets, service jobs, day care centers. It should not be a surprise that President Barack Obama recently launched his “Day in the Life” tour, visiting working families in their communities across the country to talk about their struggles and his economic policies.

And beyond empathetic economic messages and solutions that could help women on a day-to-day basis on the homefront, like flexible schedules, quality day care, paid sick leave and affordable education options, candidates need to think of ways to use their billion-dollar campaign budgets to modernize the voting system so that it better meets the realities of today’s single working woman. The fact is, all working families would benefit from more flexible access to the ballot box. How can technology and smart marketing be used to promote more absentee and vote-by-mail programs? Would it be better if we no longer had Election Day on Tuesdays? What about Saturday morning voting?

It will take skill and a focused strategy to win these unmarried voters. And the Democratic Party has the most to gain, if they can turn them out, because unmarried voters tend to vote for Democrats over Republicans.

We’ll know in November whether candidates, like shrewd fishermen, were creative, patient and smart enough to reel in this most selective voter.