In 2004, 20 million unmarried women – single, divorced, separated or widowed – didn't vote. In 2006, that number was 30 million. Depressing? Yes. But in 2008, these women are also known as the voting bloc that could determine the outcome of this election and many more to come.
Unmarried women make up the largest bloc of non-voters in the nation. Over 26 percent of eligible voters – 53 million people – are unmarried women. And for the first time in history there are as many women who are unmarried as married. A majority of households in the nation are headed by an unmarried person. Unmarried women are growing at twice the rate of married women since 2000, but are 9 percentage points less likely to register and 13 percentage points less likely to vote than married women.
Women's Voices. Women Vote. (WVWV) is targeting 25 states in an effort to register over one million unmarried women and reach out to an additional 3 million "low-propensity voters." (Unmarried women who are registered but didn't vote in at least one of the last two presidential elections.) WVWV Founder and President, Page Gardner, says, "We are making sure the voices of women on their own are heard in the political process. Particularly, that they are heard from in terms of the strength of their numbers. Polling shows that these women are paying attention earlier than ever before and they are motivated. They are wanting change, they are desperate for change, and we are going to see their participation go up." Gardner points to a recent study by the polling firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, that showed 85 percent of unmarried women saying they are so frustrated with the direction of the country, they are more likely to vote.
WVWV understands that it's not just about registering the voters but also getting them to cast their ballots. "Given their income, many of these women are incredibly stretched," Gardner says. "We have to not only take the registration to them, we have to take the voting booth to them too." She says that in 2006 they conducted a vote-by-mail program that was "extraordinarily successful." (All WVWV programs are tested before they are rolled out – with a control group and a treatment group – so the value of the program in gaining new voters and its cost-effectiveness can be determined.) In addition to registration forms, WVWV will be providing vote-by-mail applications so that women can vote at their convenience and take their time to study the candidates. The group also has a strong online presence, including widgets and banners that people can place on their own sites, allowing visitors to watch a "20 million Reasons" PSA campaign and register to vote.
In contrast to married women, Gardner says, unmarried women are largely driven by economic issues when it comes to their politics. She points to the fact that 44 percent of them live in households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less, while approximately 44 percent of married women live in households earning over $75,000 annually. One in five unmarried women lacks health care, and 50 percent of children who are age six or younger – and live with single Moms – live in poverty. The connection between this voting bloc's economic concerns and its potential power at the polls isn't lost on Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor at Hillary Clinton for President. Lewis coined the phrase "single anxious female" which has since gained traction in the press.
"I was talking to a reporter who used a term I didn't like – something that sounded too Sex and the City," Lewis told me. "So I said that wasn't accurate, the biggest common factor was economic anxiety, more like single anxious female."
According to Lewis, the Clinton campaign has a layered program to connect with "women on their own" and make an impact. "We know that they are more likely to be economically vulnerable," she says, "and to think of themselves as outsiders to the political system. So our outreach programs include an emphasis on economic issues that make a difference in their lives – like equal pay – where Hillary has been the leader in the Senate on strengthening equal pay laws. We also did a series of events around Equal Pay Day in the early primary states and nationwide. In New Hampshire, we held a panel discussion led by Evelyn Murphy, an expert on equal pay, and released a list of women supporters, including the [New Hampshire] co-chair who was also the first woman firefighter in the state. In Iowa, [former First Lady of Iowa] Christie Vilsack did a press conference with two cakes – one whole one representing men's pay, and one with a big slice taken out for women's pay; in Nevada, an open letter was signed by many women urging support for Hillary's equal pay bill. Meanwhile, nationally, Hillary spoke at a rally at the Capitol – as she has done before. We also featured a calculator on our website where women could figure out their own wage gap. Hillary also often talks about her commitment to Social Security – and her opposition to Republican attempts to privatize it – as an example of where she stands up and fights. Single women also often have family responsibilities – Hillary talks about her work for children's health, and also issues like long-term care, because being responsible for aging parents is a growing concern."
Audrey Waters, spokesperson for the John Edwards for President campaign, says that Senator Edwards has an agenda that strikes a chord with all women, and his economic platform in particular appeals to unmarried women. "Senator Edwards has proposed a bold and specific policy agenda on issues that most directly impact women voters," says Waters. "We're proud of the tremendous support it has earned Senator Edwards among women." She also points to the campaign website's Women for Edwards page and "an extensive outreach effort, led in part by NARAL Pro-Choice America President Emeritus, Kate Michelman, who has campaigned for us in New Hampshire and other early states."
While Lewis and Waters both point to the importance their campaigns place on addressing issues of particular concern to unmarried women, the Obama for America campaign seems to have a different approach. Spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "Women connect with Barack's message regardless of age, marital status or income because of the new ideas and real change he'll bring to Washington. All women are tired of politicians telling them what they want to hear; Barack tells them what they need to hear. They want an end to divisive politics in Washington and Barack is the only candidate who's actually worked to bring people together to get things done that matter to people – in the Illinois and US Senate he's been able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to pass ethics reforms, health care for uninsured children, domestic violence prevention, and bring change to the way government works." Psaki described the Obama campaign's outreach efforts: "We have a broad approach to communicating with women and some of that outreach connects in particular with younger, unmarried women through blogs, emails, e-newsletters, and podcasts. But the most effective way to reach out to undecided women is through the one-on-one contact that our supporters have with their undecided friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. It's that kind of outreach that's created our 20,000 women-strong grassroots organization, Women for Obama. These women have hosted house parties, book clubs, phone banks, Girls Night Out, canvassing, and other grassroots events to bring women together with other women to talk about their support for Obama."
Lewis also says that the Clinton campaign works hard in its outreach efforts to address feelings unmarried women have of being political outsiders. She says, "Our program in Iowa, for example, is geared to encouraging people, especially women, who have not caucused before: our Caucus with a Buddy program and the video Caucusing is Easy. We also feature women as messengers, knowing that woman-to-woman communication can be particularly effective. Single women strongly support having more women in elected office; many of our surrogates are elected women leaders, like Senator Barbara Mikulski, Congresswomen Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Sheila Jackson Lee, Allyson Schwartz, Hilda Solis, etc…."
While the campaigns vie for this voting bloc that the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner study describedas "hav[ing] the power to reshape American politics further, if they vote," Gardner and WVWV will continue to do the hard work to make sure their voices are heard. She says they have partnered with both state and national organizations, including state-based and national groups, USAction Education Fund, Project Vote, Working America, and others.
"Our attitude is, ‘Steal this book,' Gardner says. "We share our materials, research, lists – anything to help [other 501c3] organizations increase the participation rates of unmarried women… anyone interested in doing that, we consider partners." Gardner says that every year since WVWV's founding in 2004 the organization's voter lists have grown in value, and their programs are increasingly innovative. "We have the best marital status model – predicting the likelihood that a person is unmarried – in the country," she says. "We have designed a model to predict who is and who is not likely to respond to voter registration and vote-by-mail efforts, so that helps organizations use their dollars wisely. And we know the issues that concern these women so we can ensure that we are talking to them in a way that resonates."
Gardner knows the impact that unmarried women can have – not only in 2008 – but the years ahead. "What we're trying to do by making this group of women heard – not just through voting, but advocating for their issues, and making sure politicians see their power – that they are the decisive factor in so many races….We are saying that their issues of concern need to be at the top of the list. Their power when they participate is astounding. We want that power realized, and their agenda to become America's agenda."