Awkward Kerry, Hopeless Bush

The candidates' pitiful pitch for single women

Those who are insured find it hard to keep up with the cost of health care. Because of his disability, Maldonado's son requires special food that costs $350 of her $1,400 monthly budget. And Hillary Sedaris, a divorced mother in Brooklyn who has private health insurance, recently forked out $72 just for the co-payment for medication to treat her 10-year-old daughter's head lice. Finding a mere 10 minutes to pick up the prescription is a challenge for Sedaris, whose daily commute from home to her daughter's school to work takes an hour and a half each way.

Though many are lukewarm about the Democratic candidates (Sedaris says she is "not at all interested in or excited about Kerry" and Maldonado can only recall Al Gore as "what's his name, the guy who lost"), single women still gravitate toward the party. They're more concerned about social issues, more likely to be pro-choice, and more likely to oppose the war. In 2000, "what's his name" led Bush by 36 points among single women, whose numbers matched that of all African American, Hispanic, and Jewish voters combined. In a survey this March by "Women's Voices. Women Vote," 65 percent of single women said they believed the country was on the wrong track, as opposed to 51 percent of the total electorate. And that was before news about the torture of Iraqi prisoners deepened disgust and anger with the president.

Taking female votes from a president whose administration closed the White House Office on Women's Issues and had fact sheets about equal pay for women erased from government websites should be easy. The hitch for Kerry is that single women will only cast their ballots for him if they feel engaged enough to go to the polls in the first place. And even though political strategists think they're hot, these would-be swing voters feel taken for granted.

Part of the problem is a lag in campaign tactics. Political types have long known about the gender gap; since at least 1980, when more women voted for Carter and most men backed Reagan, women have leaned left, men right. But in trying to appeal to women, the campaigns have traditionally targeted married women, who vote in higher numbers and used to be the vast majority.

These days half of all households are headed by people on their own (only 25 percent have the "normal" married mother-father-kids arrangement). Yet somehow both parties have missed this seismic demographic shift. "The candidates don't seem to be willing to move beyond their old strategic script, which is marriage and family, marriage and family," says Tom Coleman, founder and executive director of Unmarried America, a California-based advocacy group. "We've heard so much about eliminating the marriage penalty, but everyone's ignored the fact that Bush's tax reform plan increases the marriage bonus for couples who receive bonuses."

And although as part of that shift, 46 percent of all voting-age women are now unmarried, policy and political rhetoric tend to approach the male-less female only as a problem. While the Republicans have been the driving force behind the Bush administration's marriage initiative, which uses government funding to encourage people to wed, most Democrats have blithely gone along with it. The idea of intervening in such complex, personal affairs offends Maldonado, the Brooklyn mom, who says her children saw a hellish marriage. "They can't tell me it's better to be with him," she says. "I know what it's like to hear your child say, 'If I have to live with my father, I'd rather live in a dumpster.' "


With a pro-choice platform in an overwhelmingly pro-choice country, you might think Democrats would loudly proclaim their support for abortion, especially since Bush has veered so far out of the mainstream with his opposition to emergency contraception, sex education, and the use of condoms as AIDS prevention that he has alienated even some pro-lifers. But the party has been tentative about abortion. Kerry, who personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's right to have one, has said he'll appoint only Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade. Still, no one in his camp seemed to balk at the idea of adding an anti-choice VP to the ticket, in the form of John McCain (who, in any case, has vigorously denied his interest in the spot). And in April, Kerry was notably absent from the March for Women's Lives, the biggest pro-choice rally in history.

For Alexandra Hager, 37, the issue cuts deep. Hager, who plans to vote for Kerry and is working to register new voters in swing states, is committed to protecting civil liberties and social services. But for her the right to abortion, which she believes the Bush administration would like to take away, reaches another level. "I take that very personally," says Hager. "Very personally. I mean, how dare they?"

Linderman, the mom from Park Slope, says Bush's decisions about Iraq typify the worst of male behavior. "I find his cowboy mentality so disturbing," says Linderman, who directs an academic support and college awareness program for high school students in the city. "He just went against the views of the rest of the civilized world, like 'I'm the male and I'm going to talk for the group.' Well, I run my own program at work, but I don't speak like that. None of the other women I know who are in charge speak like that."

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