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?”
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.”
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.”
It’s not far-fetched for Democrats to count on votes from women like Linderman, who would probably vote for a sock puppet if it meant getting Bush out of office. Kerry can bank on their votes, even as he courts “security moms” and others in swing states who might otherwise vote Republican. That means he can take moderate positions, like his “maybe we even need more troops” stance on the war. But the maneuvering could lose him ground with a not insignificant chunk of voters bent on peace.
For instance, you might assume Code Pink, a grassroots group with some 100 chapters nationwide, would naturally fall in step behind the Democrat. Code Pink has been loud and clear about its opposition to the president, targeting Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice with “pink slip” campaigns—which generally involve waving symbolic pink lingerie and demanding that the person in question get the hell out of office. But because Kerry hasn’t been clear about an exit plan from Iraq, the group has stopped short of supporting him.
“We’re just too concerned about his position on the war,” says Code Pink organizer Gael Murphy. She says the group is working on a petition asking Kerry to set a date for withdrawing the troops, a rare instance of dangling the votes before the candidate and demanding a little something in exchange.
The wooing, on all sides, is just beginning. The Democratic Party is now training hundreds of nurses and other community leaders to have “woman-to-woman” communications about the election. Doro Bush Koch, the president’s sister, and Elizabeth Cheney, the VP’s daughter, have just launched a series of programs targeting both single and suburban women that stress national security. And moveon.org, the Committee to Redefeat the President, and Planned Parenthood, are among a dozen or so groups hard at work to get single women to both register and vote.
If they succeed in winning her political attention, the single woman could ultimately change the course of the country, says Donna Brazile, a single woman herself who managed Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and is now chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. For now, though, activists’ sights are set smaller: getting women like Laura Schalchli to go out and vote on November 2. Will Schalchli do it? “It’s unlikely,” she says, “but I hope so.”
Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.