The Sex and the City voter
This year, the Bush and Kerry campaigns joined the media and various women’s groups throughout this election to chase a hot new voter, the unmarried woman. Dubbed the “Sex and the City” vote–after the popular HBO show that gave America’s single thirty-something woman a voice in popular culture–this elusive group of 22 million women was expected to turn the election in John Kerry’s favor. But in the end it was George W. Bush who successfully wooed the single female voter. Bush increased his share of the unmarried women’s vote by twenty percent over the 2000 election, more than increases in votes cast by unmarried men, married women or married men.
Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns targeted the “Sex and the City” vote early by devising campaign efforts such as “Babes for Bush,” “W Stands for Women,” and the less clever “Kerry-Edwards National Women’s Organizing Day.” And, both candidates showcased the their daughters in campaign activities to demonstrate their commitment to single women. However, while the Bush and Kerry daughters are in their own unique ways accomplished women, with their trust funds and Ivy League educations they are hardly typical of most unmarried American women.
Partisan interest groups scarcely did better than the campaigns at reaching out to the single female voter. Groups such as “Running in Heels” and “Axis of Eve” offered enticements such as free salon services, designer shoes, and skimpy t-shirts and panties bearing provocative slogans to encourage political participation. Beyond their clever gimmicks and wild campaign appearances, these campaigns offered very little in the way of substantive arguments for or against either candidate.
As the campaign moved along, the phrase “Sex and the City” vote began taking on new meanings. Some news sources described the “Sex and the City” voter as any single woman between the age of 18 and 88. (Hmm, this Thanksgiving I’ll be sure to ask my 82-year-old widowed Grandmother which Sex and the City character she most identified with this election cycle: Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte or, gasp, Samantha.)
Even Sex and the City star and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker got it wrong when, campaigning for John Kerry in Ohio on October 21st, she encouraged “Tri-state women to get out and vote because of the 22 million single women in this country–many of them “Sex And The City” fans–aren’t registered to vote.” However, according to 2003 U.S. Census bureau data, there are 47 million single women in this country, 22 million of which fall within the 34-44 age range, the demographic portrayed by Parker’s hit show.
Ms. Magazine devoted its pre-election Fall 2004 issue to the elusive single female voter. The periodical’s bright red cover shouts “It’s the Women Stupid: Will it take 22 Million Women to Save the World?” suggesting there might be some secret to winning the election contained in its pages. The subsequent article clearly identifies the 22 million women as the likely unmarried female voters between the ages of 25 and 44. Yet the article disappoints the reader by running through the typical laundry list of Democratic issues; abortion rights, public schools, affordable health care and prescription drugs, and cites a March 2004 survey of 1,808 unmarried women to back up its claim that these issues matter most to single women.
Post-election coverage credits moral issues as pivotal in turning out votes for Bush. However, moral issues do not resonate with unmarried women like they do among other voting segments. At AEI’s final installment of the 2004 Election Watch, Karlyn Bowman argued that “values issues have contributed to one of the biggest gaps in our politics and that is the marriage gap”
“Married voters and especially married voters with children look more Republican than unmarried voters,” she said. “The marriage gap is much larger than the gender gap.” So if moral values didn’t bring out unmarried women to vote for Bush, what did?
Let’s look more closely at this new political creature, the unmarried woman to better understand her position on the issues. Continuing a trend that has persisted for several decades, the percentage of unmarried women rose by ten percent from 1990 to 2003. A significant change has occurred within that group of unmarried women. The proportion of women who have never married has increased considerably, by 32% from 1990 to 2003, both offsetting the decline in women who are unmarried due to divorce and increasing the percentage of unmarried women overall. This trend is even greater among women ages 35 to 44 than of those between the ages of 25 and 34.
This change in why women are unmarried suggests a shift in the attitude of today’s single woman. She is unmarried by choice, having made a conscientious decision to delay or forgo marriage to focus entirely on her education and career. These women are the daughters of the baby boom generation, the female counterpart of Generation X. She grew up with female role models in the workplace; she watched her mother juggle a career and family. She was taught that she had options outside of marriage and family. She found her own place in the world.
Today’s unmarried woman is independent and mindful of the way in which political and economic issues affect her on a personal level. She wonders whether her investments and retirement accounts are safe from broad fluctuations in stock prices. She follows interest rates and real estate trends with the intent to one day buy her own home. Or, if she already owns a home she is concerned about the quality of life in her neighborhood and the future value of her investment. A large part of her pay is taken each payday by government in the form of income and social security taxes to fund programs from which she receives few direct benefits. (Singles already receive fewer total benefits from their employers than their married and married-with-children colleagues.) Perhaps the Kerry campaign failed to convince unmarried women that the Bush administration has mishandled the economy.
Unmarried women tend to live in urban areas and here too Bush narrowed the margin between himself and his Democratic opponent by picking up ten percentage points since the 2000 election. Urban areas are more likely to be targets of terrorism than suburban and rural areas. Perhaps the Bush campaign’s emphasis on the war against terrorism resonated with these urban unmarried women more than with her “Security Mom” sisters who reside largely in suburban and rural areas.
That single women vote based their votes on the abortion issue alone is simplistic and efforts to attract her with provocative slogans, free shoes and salon services is offensive. Exit polls suggest that the threat of terrorism, tax cuts, and a favorable economy were just as important as moral issues in a voter’s decision to cast a ballot for George W. Bush. Were these the issues that charmed over 1 million single women, who voted for Al Gore in 2000, into casting their votes for George W. Bush last Tuesday? Perhaps. One thing is certain though; by Wednesday afternoon the Kerry campaign was left standing alone like an adolescent boy to squirm while his adversary sweet-talked his long-time steady girl.
Gianna Splitstoser is an economics instructor and writer who divides her time between Alaska and Washington D.C.