by Jeff Fleischer(Women's eNews, January 13, 2008)
So far, unmarried women–many of whom stayed home in 2004–are engaging strongly with the primary process and showing a strong partiality for Democrats.
“What we’re seeing is an incredible amount of interest in this election and an increased commitment to get involved,” says Page Gardner, president of Women’s Voices, Women Vote, a Washington-based group focused on spurring unmarried women to the voting booth.
Gardner says her group’s research found unmarried women nationwide are the least satisfied with the direction of the country of any voting bloc.
This year’s record primary turnout–New Hampshire’s estimated half million votes last week numbered 100,000 more than the previous record from 2000–includes plenty of single women.
Among all registered voters ages 18 to 29, the nonpartisan research group CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, found 43 percent turned out in New Hampshire, compared to just 18 percent of young voters in 2004.
Gardner says single women in New Hampshire accounted for about 22 percent of the Democratic vote, compared to 12 percent in the Republican primary. In Iowa, single women made up 28 percent of Democratic caucus goers. Those figures are high for primary elections and not far off recent general election patterns.
Sixty-two percent of unmarried women nationally favored John Kerry against George W. Bush in 2004, compared to 51 percent of women overall. In 2000, Al Gore received 63 percent among unmarried women and 54 percent of women overall against Bush. According to census data, 46 percent of voting-age women nationwide are unmarried, but they made up just 22.4 percent of the electorate in 2004 and 19 percent in 2000.
Partisan Balance at Stake
If single women continue to vote in higher numbers and stay faithful to the Democrats, pollster Kellyanne Conway says they could shift the partisan balance in the general election and beyond.
“If the Democrats can reach out to these unmarried women, they could be a majority party for a fairly long time,” says Conway, founder of the Washington-based Polling Company, which provides research primarily for Republican candidates. “That’s a challenge for the Republicans, because unmarried women vote much more heavily Democratic than women overall.”
Conway says the “explosion of unmarried women and female entrepreneurship across America gives both parties the opportunity to reach out to these groups of voters.”
Meanwhile, female voters overall may continue to prove the difference.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, and even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the lightly contested Wyoming GOP caucus, all won in part by carrying the plurality of women.
Among Republicans, 43 percent of New Hampshire primary voters were women compared to 57 percent of men, the exact reverse of the Democratic primary.
Yet the top-four GOP contenders in New Hampshire–McCain, Romney, Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani–all drew slightly more of their support from women than from men, with only Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the lone Republican candidate to oppose the Iraq invasion, seeing a significant gap in favor of men. In Iowa, Huckabee was the only Republican candidate to poll better among women than men, getting 40 percent of the female vote compared to just 24 percent for Romney.
GOP Women’s Vote Still Shaping
“On the Republican side, it’s a little harder to see who is the natural candidate to draw more women than men,” says Kathleen Dolan, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It may be at this point we’re seeing everybody still pretty evenly distributed and voters not sure of who’s ultimately going to get support. That could change if one candidate starts to really pull ahead.”
In the Democratic primary, much was made nationally of Clinton receiving 47 percent of the female vote in winning New Hampshire to overcome what polls showed as a lead for Obama. However, as Diane Bystrom of Iowa State University’s Catt Center for Women and Politics notes, that result shows the impact of a three-way race. Obama drew about the same percentage of women in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa, while John Edwards dropped and Clinton gained.
“While everybody’s talking about Clinton and Obama, John Edwards was the candidate who hurt Clinton in Iowa,” says Bystrom. “Edwards did well in the state in 2004; many women caucused for him in 2004 and remained loyal to him this year.”
In addition to turnout in upcoming states for Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, another factor among Democrats is the role of independents. Obama was helped by independents in the open primary systems of Iowa and New Hampshire. But the candidates will soon be facing closed races where only registered Democrats can vote, and Clinton led among Democrats in the first two contests.
“It may be that we saw some differences between Iowa and New Hampshire in part because of which party independents were voting with in those races,” Dolan says. “I think we’ll start to see clearer pictures of party support as we move into the states that have more closed primaries.”
Tight, Competitive Races Ahead
On the heels of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, both the Democratic and Republican presidential races remain highly competitive heading into the next contests.
Michigan’s Jan. 15 primary is of limited importance in deciding the parties’ nominees because the state moved up its primary date; in 2004, the Democrat primary was held Feb. 7. In response, the Democratic National Committee announced in October it was stripping Michigan of all its delegates to the national convention.
After that, most candidates–including Edwards and Obama–took their names off the ballot. Only Clinton, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel remain on the ballot, limiting the importance of the contest despite Michigan’s size and history as a swing state.
For their part, the Republicans stripped Michigan of half its delegates for moving up the primary. Only Romney–the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney–and McCain–who beat George W. Bush there in 2000–are devoting significant resources to the race.
After Michigan comes Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, then the 23-state elections on Feb. 5. In the past this was called Super Tuesday, but this year it’s turning into “Super Duper” Tuesday because it’s so much bigger than in 2004, when only seven states were involved.
All in all, political forecasters will be working without a map between now and Feb. 5. Only South Carolina voted early enough in 2004 and 2000 to have a primary impact, with Edwards benefiting in 2004 and Bush, then the governor of Texas, in 2000.
Nevada, which votes Jan. 19, hasn’t seen a major poll of its voters since December, well before the split decisions of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist. He has written regularly for publications such as Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Daily Herald, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine. He is a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.