02.11.12

Swing-State Singles: How Unmarried Voters Could Decide the Election

Unmarried voters played a decisive role in 2008, and four years later there are even more of them. Eric Klinenberg on how the candidates can court this up-for-grabs demographic.

The phrase “swinging singles” will take on new meaning during the 2012 presidential campaign—and not because of the candidates’ behavior. This year there are an unprecedented 100 million unmarried American adults in the electorate. Influential political strategists believe that these singles might swing the election, not only because they’re so numerous, but also because they’re concentrated in contested states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Mobilizing the single vote is a daunting challenge. One problem is that singles are a diverse demographic, and not just by the usual divisions of race, religion, and sexual orientation. The group includes young, highly educated professionals seeking glamour in big cities; single parents struggling to make ends meet; middle-class divorcees; widows and widowers; and unemployed, “unmarriageable” men living in residential hotels. There’s simply no political tent large enough to contain them, and no message that would compel the singles of the world to unite.

Another problem is that singles tend not to identify that way. They self-define as women or African-American or gay—identities they will keep for life. But they might not always be single, and often they’re actively trying not to be. This makes organizing them as a political bloc nearly impossible.

The better strategy is to break them into niches, and to target the ones with more common concerns.

Democrats, who’ve been most aggressive about winning over single voters, are targeting women. Pollster Stanley Greenberg’s firm calls single women “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country” because they have a long record of supporting liberal candidates who favor causes such as gun control, funding for public education, expanded access to health care, and reproductive choice. There are also a lot of them. According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, “Their current share of the voter pool—a quarter of eligible voters—is nearly the size of white evangelical Protestants, the GOP’s largest base group.”

Page Gardner, a Democratic political strategist in northern Virginia, recognized the importance of mobilizing single female voters a decade ago, after learning that 20 million of them failed to participate in the historically close 2000 election. By her estimation, that made them the nation’s largest group of nonvoters. In 2003 she started Women’s Voices, Women Vote (WVWV), the first organization dedicated to increasing civic participation among single women across the United States.

WVWV was an embryonic organization in the 2004 presidential election and, despite its efforts that year, compared with married women, single women were about 9 percent less likely to register and 13 percent less likely to vote. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Gardner did everything in her power to turn single women into the new soccer moms. WVWV ran a voter registration campaign, which included a “20 million reasons” public service announcement recorded by celebrities, single mothers, and widows. By election week, the organization had generated more than 900,000 registration applications and sent about a million vote-by-mail forms to swing-state singles in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and Montana.

Did it make a difference? According to WVWV’s numbers, in 2008 single women were just 2 percent more likely to register and 1 percent more likely to vote than they were four years earlier. But in absolute numbers the increase is substantial, rising from 27.9 million single female voters in 2004 to 30.5 million in 2008, and their margin of support for the Democratic candidate rose from 62 percent (for Kerry) to 70 percent (for Obama). (Married women, by contrast, voted 50 percent for John McCain to 47 percent for Obama.) Both Gardner and Greenberg believe that single women played a pivotal role in the election. But will they do it again in 2012?

Republican strategists don’t think so. With single Americans feeling economically insecure and skeptical that President Obama can lead the country back to prosperity, the GOP is making a strong push to bring disaffected singles—both men and women—to their side. They see the 2010 congressional elections as a turning point, because 50 percent of the white, single, female vote went to Republicans, up from 39 percent in 2008. Single, white men are already more likely to support conservatives, and the Tea Party is helping Republicans get the most disaffected among them to vote President Obama out of office.

It’s too early to say which political party will win over the majority of single voters this year, or whether they will help swing the election as they did in 2008. But it’s safe to say that single voters are becoming a major force in American politics, and that from now on both parties will aggressively court them.