Make or Break

Mitt Romney’s Problem With Unmarried Women Voters Could Sink Him

Romney’s polling fine with married women, but he’s trailing Obama with single women by nearly 30 points—a gap that could prove fatal in November. Patricia Murphy reports on the message that could win them over.

05.02.12 8:45 AM ET

In the weeks after an NBC News poll showed Mitt Romney losing women voters to President Obama by 20 points, an alarmed Romney began to put women out front in his campaign. Ann Romney stepped forward as his chief surrogate, women were placed behind him at events to show a female-friendly audience, and when Governor Romney began to refer to an entrepreneur in his stump speech, he pointedly referred to the business leader as a “she.”

Supporters of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, rush for a good position at his election night party at the Westin Copley Place hotel in Boston, March 6, 2012. Republicans cast their votes in 10 states on Tuesday, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum engaged in a particularly competitive primary fight in Ohio. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Damon Winter, The New York Times / Redux

Marian Fuson of Kennett Square, Pa., before an event where Republican presidential candidate will speak at the spring reception for the Republican Committee of Chester County in Mendenhall, Pa.

But all of those theatrics may have been crafted to solve a problem that does not exist, because Mitt Romney does not have a woman problem, per se. In the latest Gallup tracking polls, he is winning among married women by 9 points over President Obama. Married women like his policies, they like his values, and they seem to relate to the father of five and longtime married man.

But when unmarried women are polled, they go for Obama by a 28-point margin, making a 37-point marriage gap that could spell the end of Romney’s presidential ambitions unless he can win over more unmarried women or increase turnout among men and married women enough to blunt the impact of that gap.

“Unmarried women made up 22.2 percent of the electorate in 2008,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who studies voting trends among women. “And in the end Obama beat McCain with a record 41-point margin between married and unmarried women. If unmarried women turn out in the same numbers … again, that would make victory very hard for Romney.”

Although the numbers are clear, it’s less clear why so many single women prefer Obama over Romney, while their married counterparts vote in the opposite direction.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, said the gap can be partially explained by other demographic factors that affect single women.

“African-Americans are less likely to be married than whites, and 9 out of 10 support the president,” Newport said. “Also young people, particularly under the age of 30, are more likely to support Obama and less likely to be married. Nonmarried people are much less likely to be religious, and people who are more religious are less likely to support Obama. A lot of these things go together.”

Conversely, Newport said, married women tend to be more conservative, more religious, and more likely to vote Republican. But at all age levels and in all demographics, a woman’s marital status affects her voting choices above and beyond all other factors.

Single women in 2012 are driven by their own economic worries and their judgment about which contender can best help to solve them.

“A lot of these women have been particularly hit by the economic downturn,” said Page Gardner, the founder of Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) that conducts extensive polling among single women. “Their lives are very stretched and stressed, their earnings are lower, they are less likely to have health insurance, their unemployment rates are higher, they are much more likely to have skipped going to the doctor.”

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WVWV recently completed polling that showed unmarried women particularly worried about cuts to Medicare and Medicaid proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans.

Those findings are in line with what Celinda Lake said she sees when she polls single women’s attitudes. “They are more secular voters, they are more liberal, they are very pro-choice,” Lake said, adding that while single women are usually less likely than married women to vote, they have become more galvanized earlier than usual, due in large part to controversies earlier this year over women’s access to contraception.

“Usually they just don’t pay attention this early. We saw in our polling their engagement jumped 20 points, from being very disengaged to being very engaged, and they attribute the Republican Party’s positions to Romney,” Lake said.

Lake predicted that Romney will try to cut his losses among single women and drive up his margins with married women and white men, who are much more likely to vote for him in November.

But she said Romney could still improve his numbers with unmarried women by focusing his message.

“If they would talk about the economy, it would help a lot. These women will vote Democratic, but the question is by what margin and in what numbers,” Lake said. “Right now they think, ‘the Republicans really don’t get my life at all.’ If the message is about family economics and fixing the economy, Romney could pick up some support.”

Ignoring the single-women problem won’t make it go away, said Page Gardner.

“At the end of the day, Romney has got to be mindful of the fact that almost half of the women in this country are unmarried, and you can’t leave half of these women out of the conversation,” she said. “They’re 55 million strong. That’s a lot of votes.”