Awkward Kerry, Hopeless Bush

The candidates' pitiful pitch for single women

Twenty-two-year-old Laura Schalchli doesn't know which presidential candidate she'll support in November—or whether she'll vote at all. A fresh-faced art student at Parsons, Schalchli is one of almost 38 million single women who sat out the last election. Why? "Apathetic youth, I guess," she says sheepishly, adding that, though her boyfriend has been pushing her to read The Economist, she doesn't follow news closely because "the whole thing just upsets me."

Schalchli knows enough to realize she's no fan of George W. Bush, though. "Why does he always have to talk about God?" she asks, wrinkling her nose as if she'd smelled something foul. "And then he went and started a war for no reason." But for all her disdain for the president, Schalchli knows, and cares, little about his competitor.

Dis them though she may, the candidates are drooling over single women like Schalchli. Since pollsters recently realized that never married, divorced, and widowed females make up the largest untapped voting bloc—some 22 million single women registered to vote skipped the 2000 election, and 16 million never signed up at all—both major parties have been engaged in a desperate and unseemly scuffle for their votes. From the president—or his handlers, anyway—we have the "W stands for Women" push. To which the Kerry folks have responded that "the W in George W. stands for 'wrong' on women's issues." To which Ann Wagner, co-chair of the Republican National Committee shot back that, in Kerry's case, "W stands for waffle." To which the puzzled single woman might reply, "Wait, Kerry doesn't even have a W in his name." Or more to the point, "What have either of you done for us lately?"

illustration: Stevie Remsberg


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There's no question the candidates want single women. But do single women want the candidates? "No, none of them," says Tracy Brown, a 43-year-old lawyer at a U.N.-affiliated agency. Delicately perched on a stool at Moe's bar in Fort Greene, Brown expressed her dismay with the president. "He took us to war under false pretenses," she says, shaking her head. "We were lied to. And now, with all the money he's putting into defense, there no money for the things I care about—health care, education." Still, Brown says she doesn't know how she'll vote in November. "I don't feel like Kerry's reaching out to people like me." Not that she expects him—or other politicians—to do much to win her over. "I'm an African American, single woman," says Brown. "We're used to struggling."

Though he will likely need them to win the election, Bush is far less likely than his opponent to win over single women. Kerry is beating him badly in the polls among women in general, with 56 percent of female likely voters supporting him, versus 40 percent backing Bush, according to a June 8 Gallup survey. Much of the president's flagging support from female voters comes from married women, who tend to vote like their husbands—Republican. Among single women, the gap is thought to be even wider. Here in the yoga studios, offices, singles bars, and day care centers of New York City, anti-Bush sentiment is through the roof. As Donna Linderman, a single mom from Park Slope, put it, "I think everything about George Bush is completely repellent." And she says he can't possibly understand her life: "I don't think he has any idea what it is to be single and raising a child on your own."

That sense of being disregarded by the political establishment is one of the main reasons almost half of eligible single female voters didn't go to the polls in the last presidential election. (Not unlike when your mom writes your personal ad, pollsters are advertising single women's political clout only because the women are too fed up to do it themselves.) According to a survey conducted by "Women's Voices. Women Vote," the organization that started the stir over single women's potential impact on the coming election, women stay away from the polls because they think government doesn't do anything to help them whether they vote or not.

As the presidential contenders belatedly turn their attention to the overworked, underpaid, and politically dispirited women who do their laundry, make their copies, and much, much more, these precious voters would do well to take this rare opportunity to make their needs known. There are many, of course. More than 21 million single women—almost half of the demographic—make less than $30,000 per year. They're more likely than both men and married women to work in marginal, low-wage jobs and to support families on their own. "I'm a disabled mother with a disabled son," says Maria Maldonado, 36, who quit her job in a travel agency and went on welfare after the birth of her son, who now uses a wheelchair. "What do they know about that?"

Without husbands, who can add income and benefits, single women are also less likely to have health insurance than their married or male counterparts. Courtney G., a 29-year-old consultant in the beauty industry who plans to vote for Bush, says she resents the fact that some mothers can qualify for subsidized health insurance by virtue of having children while she, as a single person, goes without. "It's ridiculous," she says. "I'm ready to pull a kid off the street and take them into the doctor's office with me."

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