Why Politicians Only Care About Your Wedding Ring

It’s 2014, and both parties are still reducing women to their marital status.

Detail photo of a ring worn by Penleope Cruz as she attends the 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' photocall at the Palais des Festivals during the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 14, 2011 in Cannes, France.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
April 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

As Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats dig in for this year’s midterm elec­tions, they both say they’re fo­cused on win­ning over wo­men. But that doesn’t mean they’re tar­get­ing the same voters.

Strategists sur­veyed from both parties be­lieve this year’s elec­tion res­ults will de­pend on two dis­tinct groups of fe­male voters: single wo­men tar­geted by Demo­crats, and mar­ried wo­men sought after by Re­pub­lic­ans. In­deed, des­pite all the talk of a gender gap, the big­ger polit­ic­al di­vide is between mar­ried and un­mar­ried wo­men.

Last week, of­fi­cials at the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee re­vealed a new na­tion­al voter mod­el that will help them identi­fy single wo­men and de­vise the best mes­sages to reach them, while an early blitz of TV ads from con­ser­vat­ives has been aimed squarely at mar­ried wo­men.

The loom­ing battle is crit­ic­ally im­port­ant to cor­rect two long-stand­ing elect­or­al di­lem­mas for each party. For Re­pub­lic­ans, win­ning strong sup­port from mar­ried wo­men means they could close the gender gap, a prob­lem that plagued them dur­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2012 reelec­tion cam­paign. For Demo­crats, the goal is to en­sure that single wo­men, who are solidly Demo­crat­ic, turn out to vote in the first place. Like oth­er core mem­bers of the party’s co­ali­tion, they vote in dra­mat­ic­ally smal­ler num­bers dur­ing midterm elec­tions.

The polit­ic­al dif­fer­ence between mar­ried and un­mar­ried wo­men is stark. In 2012, Obama won un­mar­ried wo­men by bet­ter than 2-to-1 while los­ing their mar­ried co­horts, who voted 53 per­cent to 46 per­cent for Mitt Rom­ney. The split stems from a vari­ety of reas­ons. Single wo­men, for in­stance, are more at­tuned to de­bates over ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion — a key Demo­crat­ic talk­ing point against Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cent years.

But ac­cord­ing to poll­sters, the gap is rooted mostly in eco­nom­ics. Single wo­men, es­pe­cially those with chil­dren, tend to be poorer than mar­ried wo­men, many of whom live in a two-in­come fam­ily. The dif­fer­ence in fin­an­cial cir­cum­stances fun­da­ment­ally al­ters how each views gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance.

“Wo­men in a stable mar­riage, wheth­er a single- or double-in­come house­hold — they have a sup­port struc­ture that’s kind of built in,” said Wes An­der­son, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist who has stud­ied the split between the two blocs. “And they start to be­come more con­scious about what they’re pay­ing for with oth­er people, so they tend to grav­it­ate to­ward us.”

Their con­cern over gov­ern­ment spend­ing of­fers an op­por­tun­ity for the GOP to press its case to mar­ried wo­men with an is­sue already front-and-cen­ter with most voters: Obama­care. An­der­son said a poll con­duc­ted in March by his firm On­Mes­sage found that 55 per­cent of them op­pose the health care law, a share roughly in line with the gen­er­al pub­lic.

That sur­vey was en­cour­aging, he ad­ded, be­cause it sug­gests the party can rep­lic­ate its per­form­ance from 2010, when the health care law was also a lead­ing is­sue. That year, Re­pub­lic­ans won 56 per­cent of mar­ried wo­men, lead­ing to a sweep­ing midterm vic­tory.

And it’s no co­in­cid­ence that most of the early TV ad­vert­ising, es­pe­cially from the con­ser­vat­ive group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, has fea­tured middle-aged wo­men sit­ting at their kit­chen table who, while not ex­pli­citly iden­ti­fied as be­ing mar­ried, ex­plain the toll they say Obama­care has taken on them and their fam­il­ies. Re­pub­lic­ans think their fo­cus on the health care law paid di­vidends in the Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al race, where Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli, branded by Demo­crats as out of the main­stream on so­cial is­sues, won mar­ried wo­men by 9 points, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is by the Demo­crat­ic polling firm Green­berg Quin­lan Ros­ner Re­search.

Single wo­men, while un­enthused about Obama­care, view gov­ern­ment sup­port more fa­vor­ably. And the is­sue al­lows Demo­crats to court them more ef­fect­ively with prom­ises of a so­cial safety net.

“The prob­lem is, and it’s true for single men as well, get­ting by in this eco­nomy on one paycheck is really very chal­len­ging,” said Mi­chael Pod­horzer, the AFL-CIO’s polit­ic­al dir­ect­or, who sees the dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al pref­er­ences of mar­ried and un­mar­ried wo­men as en­tirely the res­ult of the dif­fer­ences in their wealth. “And that puts eco­nom­ic is­sues more in the fore­front.”

The chal­lenge for Demo­crats isn’t just to per­suade these voters to back their can­did­ates. They must first make sure they vote in the first place. And on both fronts, the party has reas­on to worry.

A sur­vey re­leased this week from Green­berg Quin­lan Ros­ner found that 66 per­cent of single wo­men who voted in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion said they were “al­most cer­tain” to vote this year. That’s less than the 72 per­cent of over­all voters who said they were guar­an­teed to vote, and 13 points less than the 79 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing voters. Worse yet, Demo­crats are ahead with the group by only a 26-point mar­gin (58 per­cent to 32 per­cent), not quite as bad as their 2010 show­ing but far from their 2012 ad­vant­age.

Those num­bers, per­haps more than any oth­er reas­on, ex­plain why Demo­crats have ad­op­ted a pop­u­list agenda this year in Wash­ing­ton, push­ing is­sues like equal pay for equal work and min­im­um-wage hikes. The party, fa­cing a dif­fi­cult na­tion­al cli­mate and a red-state Sen­ate map, have to turn out and win over large shares of un­mar­ried wo­men to have a chance of mit­ig­at­ing their losses in 2014.

“Very few [single wo­men] think the na­tion­al polit­ic­al con­ver­sa­tion ad­dresses is­sues they care about most. And when that hap­pens, they don’t vote,” said Erica Seifert, a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster.

Seifert said she thought that in 2010, Demo­crats preached a mes­sage of eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery wholly out of touch with most of their base voters. This year’s agenda, fo­cus­ing on pock­et­book is­sues and in­equal­ity, is far bet­ter suited to drive turnout.

“If you’re a single wo­man, the mes­sage that Re­pub­lic­ans will aban­don you has had some ef­fect in the past,” An­der­son said. “There’s some res­on­ance there with single par­ents, es­pe­cially single moms.

“They paint that with a thick coat of class war­fare to it, and they’ve had suc­cess with that in some places.”