Pull Over, NASCAR Dads

Single women under 65--those separated, widowed, divorced or never married--represent at least 24 percent of the voting-age population and a whopping 46 percent of voting-age women.

According to an influential study by the Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake, they tend to be progressive and to lean Democratic. Indeed, if the nation's 45 million single women voted at the same rate as married women--52 percent versus 68 percent--there would be 6 million more voters in the electorate, and Gore would be in the White House today. Had they turned out at the same rate as other voters in Florida in 2000, there would have been an additional 202,640 votes cast in that state--and no razor-thin 537-vote margin.

Party leaders like Ann Lewis, national chair of the DNC's Women's Vote Center, want the Democratic Party to cultivate single women and connect them with the polling booth; Page Gardner and Christina Desser have founded Women's Voices, Women Vote (www.wvwv.org), to reach out and register them. You've probably read about attempts to woo these "Sex and the City voters" in one of the dozens of nearly identical articles that have come out since Greenberg and Lake's study was released in December.

It's about time! The silly nickname aside (most unmarried women live for a month on what Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte spent on lunch and taxis) single women are a natural constituency for the Democratic Party: They tend to be pro-choice, anti-gun, socially liberal and supporters of "big government."

Single women's main issues are, theoretically, Democratic strong suits: healthcare, employment, education. Certainly it makes more sense to cultivate them than the other demographic superstars pollsters have come up with: the suburban soccer moms that were supposed to save the party's bacon in the late 1990s but have since morphed into security moms, keen on defense; or the NASCAR dads--blue-collar white men from rural and Southern parts, who tend to be conservative, live in "red" states and drawn to the racial-gender politics of the Republican Party. (Whatever happened to the waitress mom? I kind of liked her.)

The focus on single women is good in another way. For years we've been hearing that the problem with the Democratic Party was that it was too liberal, too limp-wristed, insufficiently attentive to religious voters and--especially--too pro-choice. The American Prospect's Michael Tomasky recently suggested that Democratic intransigence on abortion rights was alienating religious swing voters. Why not court them, he suggested, if not by naming an anti-choicer as the vice presidential candidate, then by having an anti-choice speaker at the convention?

Well, perhaps because that would demoralize the legions of feminist activists already knocking themselves out for Kerry and blur the party's message: Support for abortion rights is one of the few sharp differences between the national parties (state legislatures swarm with anti-choice Dems), one that motivates more people than it turns off. I can't tell you how many progressive women I know who voted for Gore instead of Nader specifically, and sometimes solely, because of the threat to legal abortion posed by a Bush victory.

Why is it that Republicans understand so clearly that they have to keep the base happy, while the Democrats seem to delight in insulting theirs in order to court some temperamental sliver of voters who don't like them very much? Which are there more of? So-called progressive pro-lifers who care so much about forcing pregnant women to bear children that they would pull the lever for Bush, maker of dishonest war and champion of death row? Or women and men who want abortion to be legal and who fear the encroachments of sectarian religion on private life?

But there are problems with the single-women idea. For one, this is not a coherent demographic: There may be more single women than blacks, Jews and Hispanics put together, but that does not mean a Wellesley student, a welfare mother and a divorced bookkeeper have much in common. There is no NAACP for unmarried women, no equivalent of the pride, identity and agenda that mark those powerful ethnicities, and no single-woman politician who campaigns around that status. Indeed, being unmarried is more often something a female politician needs to manage carefully or risk accusations of lesbianism, man-hating, oddness or social failure.

Then, too, single women are disproportionately young, mobile, struggling and/or very, very poor--all categories that are less likely to register, vote or want to vote. The qualities associated with marriage--being older, more socially and financially stable, living in one place, owning one's home, belonging to the PTA--are the same qualities that knit one in to voting. Single women are less likely to see themselves as part of the classes politics is for, the classes that actually can get something from politicians.

"They don't believe politicians care about what they have to say," WVWV co-director Chris Desser told the Christian Science Monitor. That might sound cynical, but it may well be true.

The trouble with going after single women, those fans of progressive change, is that one has to offer them something progressive. Pay equity, for example, comes in at the top of polls of women's concerns--yet in the primary debates, Carol Moseley Braun was the only candidate who made an issue of it.

Or take healthcare: Why doesn't Kerry's plan cover all of the 44 million Americans--disproportionately female Americans, by the way--now without health insurance? Education? Do the Dems really talk about fixing the public schools in ways that would affect single mothers?

Tom Geoghegan, Mark Dudzik and Adolph Reed have all suggested in The Nation that the Democrats mobilize young voters by proposing to make college free. It's a great idea, but nobody picked up on it. One could easily come up with similar lures for the votes of single women--a federal living wage, universal public preschool and after-school (don't forget, singles with kids don't have the luxury of staying home with them),
It will be interesting to see if the Democratic campaign to sign up these voters involves offering them things they want or just telling them that they want what's on offer.

Katha Pollitt has been a columnist for The Nation since 1980.

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