Election 2008

Has Sarah Palin Motivated the Very Voters That Obama Needs to Win?

By ignoring the needs of single women, Palin may have lit a fire under the country's biggest voting bloc -- one with the power to swing the election.
Sarah Palin's coming-out speech at the Republican convention was remarkable for several reasons. First, it was watched by an astounding 37 million people. That's more than the Oscars and the World Series, though still a million less than those who watched Barack Obama's historic Mile High Stadium speech.

The Palin speech was shocking for its aggressive attacks against Obama, and it was full of condescending misrepresentations of Obama and his record. Palin used a lot of what Rachel Maddow has taken to calling lies on her new MSNBC show (joining a chorus of journalists who are trying to shame the corporate media into acknowledging mendacity when they know it to be present).

But a third and perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Palin speech was who and what she left out of her picture of Alaskan adventure and small-town values. Palin never mentioned health care, women's economic issues like equal pay, or showed any empathy for the economic plight of millions who have done very poorly in George Bush's America -- particularly unmarried women, who, by virtue of their single status, tend to fare the worst in economic downturns.

At 26 percent of the voting-age population, single women are also the biggest single eligible voter demographic. And according to a survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, they are the most dependably progressive voters in the electorate. In the last two elections, unmarried women supported Democrats with 62 percent of their vote in 2004 and 65 percent in 2006.

With her speech, or rather with what was missing from it, Palin drew attention to the biggest fault line in the election: the huge chasm between mostly white, married women, and the less white, overall less affluent, but far more progressive unmarried women.

The dirty little secret in this election is that the gender gap -- which may be as high as 10 percent for Obama -- is dwarfed by the marriage gap. In a recent tracking survey by Gallup in mid-August, Obama led 49 percent to 39 percent among women, but trailed 49 percent to 40 percent among married women. Meanwhile, among unmarried women, Obama trounced McCain by 57 percent to 30 percent.

It is unlikely that the Palin nomination will change the marriage gap dynamics. In fact, it might exacerbate them further. But the bigger challenge is this: Single women, for a variety of commonsense reasons, do not vote at the same rate as married women, who frequently vote the same as their husbands. In order for progressives to gain influence and for Obama to win, the large unengaged voting bloc of single women will need to be registered and mobilized immediately. And the primary way to reach them is by talking about "kitchen table" issues, not cultural issues and "family values" that Republicans use to frame their messages.

Who Does Palin Think She Is?

Many people watching the Palin speech must have wondered: "Who the hell does she think she is?" After all, Obama has spent a grueling year meeting and speaking to many thousands of Americans across the country, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, winning a majority of the primaries and garnering more than 17 million votes via an incredibly organized and effective primary campaign, not to mention his sterling nomination speech in front of 80,000 delirious supporters in Denver. And Sarah Palin, what had she done? For 20 months she was governor of a state with a population of about 70,000 less than her "favorite city," San Francisco. She showed up when John McCain beckoned her to St. Paul, bringing her moose jokes and small-town hockey mom credentials. Her task: to stir up the pots of race, class, gender, culture and resentment in America.

Of course, the mostly male media loved her speech, since for many of them politics is best when it involves combat. Time magazine's Jay Carney enthused, "Two things are clear after Sarah Palin made her do-or-die debut before 20-plus million people tonight. She is amazingly self-confident. And she knows how to nail a speech." James Gordon Meek and David Saltonstall at the New York Daily News wrote: "Sarah Palin boasts she can take it -- and boy, can she dish it out."

The killer narrative of the pit bull with lipstick, dishing it out to the Ivy League smarty pants, was too enticing for the ratings-hungry media to ignore. So they glossed over the false content in the speech -- the rampant lies and the striking omissions -- and focused on the fairy tale, the pugilism and the delivery: "Gee, Sarah Palin reads real good from the teleprompter." "She is a comer." "She could turn this race around." That's what passed for analysis in the mainstream media. And Palin, with the media's enormous hype, took all the oxygen out of the rest of the convention, including McCain's clumsy follow-up speech. Palin continues to dominate McCain's campaign stops.

The corporate media saw a big opportunity when Palin arrived on the scene. Why not make the presidential campaign one big reality show, with Sarah Palin as the centerpiece? It took about two days before Palin was on the cover of US Weekly, clutching one of her key political assets -- her infant Down syndrome son, Trig. Soon the media began presenting Palin as Obama's equal, at least in terms of coverage, pushing the old war horses John McCain and Joe Biden to the sidelines. The slice of America that is reality show-obsessed got its gender-versus-race story line back, and there is no telling where this chapter is going to lead.

Along the way, the media made the assumption that women would be as thrilled with Palin and her presentation as they themselves were. After all, wasn't she a powerful example of modern feminism? A woman who could manage her unwieldy family and run the state of Alaska at the same time, no problem? And besides, she is so cute in that Tina Fey, helmet-headed, librarian kind of way. But of course, as we have come to learn in an avalanche of revelations, Palin is far from perfect. The biggest blow to the idyllic scene was the small fact that her teenage daughter was pregnant and was going to get herself married to the guy right away, even if he doesn't want kids and prefers to be "fuckin' chillin," according to his MySpace page.

Who and What Was Left Out

In her speech, Palin painted a picture of small-town life, patriotism -- "always thinking of country first" -- unencumbered by the complexities of big-city crime and poverty. I'm sure such places exist, and probably many yearn for the good old days -- a life that was more simple and less economically stressful. But Palin's small-town perfect picture is far more fantasy than reality. In truth, small-town life often is a big struggle for its denizens, in terms of jobs, mortgages, affordable health care and much more. Rust Belt towns and cities have been boarded up. In many parts of the country, perfect-pitch America has passed into a world of agribusiness, housing sprawl, Wal-Marts and fast food strips -- a lot like life apparently is in Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin was a small-town mayor.

And who is left out of the idyllic, nonexistent vision of "America" so adored by conservatives? Huge numbers of Americans: city dwellers, people of color (who represent 26 percent of eligible voters -- but that's not important to Republicans. As the Washington Post reported, the Republican convention was the whitest in 40 years), homosexuals, millions of creative people whose lifestyles are not in the Palin world view, and of course single people, particularly single women.

Single women, of course, cover a wide gamut of wealth and education, but their single common denominator is they are making their life on their own. And because of huge wealth stratification, most single women are less well off than their married sisters. It is these single women, the group Palin may have alienated with her speech, that have been hit hardest by the Bush economy. Palin showed no empathy for the many millions of single moms, widowed women on social security, women abandoned by partners, or simply independent women who have a challenging time in an economy where 80 percent of inflation-adjusted income has shifted upward and away from them. The top 1 percent of households now claim nearly a quarter of the nation's wealth, a troubling trend given that women account for 59 percent of low-wage earners -- those making less than $8 an hour -- and, on average, still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a white man earns. That figure shrinks to 63 cents on the dollar for African-American women and 53 cents for Hispanic women.

When Palin was fetishizing her version of the perfect family ("Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge"), she missed the huge audience of single women by a mile. And as some post-speech polls indicated, women overall are not so excited by Palin.

A national survey of 1,356 women -- 1,295 likely voters -- conducted on Sept. 2 and 3 and focus groups conducted after Palin's acceptance speech by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for WVWVAF found that while the selection of Palin is seen positively by female voters, it is also the case that her selection has given little lift to the Republican ticket and significant questions about her remain to be answered. Female voters -- married and unmarried alike -- were impressed with Palin's poise and confidence but wonder what she stood for and how she would address America's most pressing problems. Fundamental to the unmarried women in these groups was the fact that she did not sufficiently address key issues in their lives. This is particularly true of the economy, about which unmarried women claim to have heard almost nothing of relevance to their economic standing. One single woman said point-blank, "I didn't get anything about the economy."

On the other hand, Palin has attracted big crowds while campaigning and reading, from teleprompters, the same speech she gave at the convention. The Washington Post reports that positive ratings of Palin spike to 80 percent among white women with children at home and among white women who are evangelical Protestants. The percentage of white women with "strongly favorable" opinions of McCain jumped 12 percentage points from before the parties' national conventions.

The Progressive Challenge

While the media is hyped up on Palin, and she has energized the conservative base, it is unlikely she will gain any ground with the single women vote, which has historically been much more progressive than married women as a group. In 2004, John Kerry won women by 51 percent to 48 percent; he lost married women, 44 percent to 54 percent, while enjoying a huge margin among unmarried women, 62 percent to 37 percent. In the 2006 congressional races, unmarried women supported Democratic candidates by a 33 percent margin.

So although unmarried women are more likely to support Obama than McCain, getting them to the polls is another matter. Unmarried women are underrepresented in the electorate. In 2004, 20 million unmarried women did not vote. Compared to married women, single women are 9 percent less likely to register and 13 percent less likely to vote. To use one striking example, given that John Kerry won unmarried women by 62 percent to 37 percent, not getting unmarried women out effectively left 12 million progressive votes at home -- and possibly cost Kerry the election.

Relative to the rest of the electorate, unmarried women remain unengaged. According to the Greenberg research, 64 percent describe themselves as very interested in politics (10 on a 10-point scale), which compares unfavorably to 73 percent of voters overall in an NPR survey in battleground states; among married women, the number reaches 78 percent, a 14-point difference. Stanley Greenberg adds that "on balance unmarried women report the same level of contact as other voters." But as Greenberg emphasizes: "More important, given their progressive instincts and the fact that they are less likely to participate in politics, unmarried women should be getting more contact than average."

And while the unmarried-women demographic is a vastly diverse constituency with varied politics and needs, economic issues have a huge impact on many of their lives:

  • More than 40 percent of single women have household incomes of $30,000 or less;

  • Single women make 56 cents on every dollar that a married man makes;

  • Single women are less likely than married people to have health coverage;

  • More than 10 million are single moms with children at home.


This is why meat-and-potato issues rate at the top of the agenda for unmarried women, and why progressives need to reach out to single women by addressing these issues.

Getting the Job Done

So the challenge for progressives over the next two months is to energize unmarried women by addressing their highest priority -- the economy -- in a way they can relate to their own experience. All the rhetoric about inflation, or whether we are in a recession or not, is likely baloney to them. Many single women are making it paycheck to paycheck. So it would stand to reason that Obama's tax plan -- which would reduce taxes for 95 percent of the population and only raise them for people making more than $250,000 -- would be a well-known fact and a cause of motivation. Yet for reasons that are hard to grasp but could certainly be attributed to the media repeating false Republican talking points, some polls show that more than half of voters think Obama is going to raise taxes on them, not lower them.

So, to progressive leaders, consider the math: Single women are the biggest voting bloc; they will vote for the Dems 2-1. Increasing their turnout in relation to the overall electorate by 3 points would increase the Democrats' vote by 2 points. In other words, single women would make up 24 percent of the vote share instead of 22 percent, and that could make a big difference. Since overall single women make up 26 percent of total voting-age population, if you do the simple arithmetic, they are the group primed for the biggest growth among progressives and the electorate at large. It's time to reach out and motivate.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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