Sorry, NASCAR dads, your 15 minutes are up. Single women are the new flavor of the month for the political punditocracy. Inspired by a survey conducted by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake showing an untapped gold mine of votes among women sans men, the buzz is all about how these babes can swing the election. With 16 million unmarried women now unregistered and 22 million unmarried women who are registered but didn't vote in the last election, this could be a formidable bloc.
While neither party has a lock on this voting group, 65 percent of single women think the country is headed in the wrong direction. That could be good news for the Democrats, but only if they're willing to appeal to women as women. Candidates are notoriously reluctant to go after the women's vote specifically. The joke around Washington during the State of the Union speech was that if you took a drink every time George Bush said "nu-cue-ler" you'd go home smashed, but if you took a drink every time he said "woman" you'd be stone cold sober. And thank God we've now got women in the military. They're the only ones that got mentioned in the debates between Democratic contenders, as in "our fighting men and women."
Being shy with the W word doesn't make any sense, given that women (with or without those single non-voters) have the ability to control any election. In most of the primaries, the turnout was close to 60 percent female, and women have outnumbered men in the general election since the gender gap first raised its pretty head in 1980. Maybe the candidates are afraid they'll scare men away if they talk to women directly, but this needn't be the case. Take the pay gap—it polls number one with women across demographic and socioeconomic groups year after year. Candidates don't have to talk men vs. women to appeal to the female voter. In fact, if they're clever, they can appeal to men at the same time: "Just think how much better off every family would be if our daughters, mothers and spouses were paid what they're worth."
George W. (is-not-for-woman) Bush will be a tough sell this go-round for moderate women who believed him when he said he was a compassionate conservative. Women know he gave them a bait and switch. He tried to bench those soccer-daughters with an initiative to weaken Title IX. He has dismantled international family planning, even in countries with AIDS epidemics, closed the White House Office on Women's Issues and opened one on faith-based initiatives. That translates into federal dollars going to churches that work against women's rights, most notably in the fundamental right to control their own bodies. The War President is widely expected to tout advances for women in Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence that women should help him get re-elected. Putting aside the debate over whether women in those countries really are better off, the last time I looked, neither group could vote in the USA.
John Kerry said early in the race that he intended to treat female voters exactly like male voters, because they care about the same things—jobs, health care, good wages, security. He's right—up to a point. But far more men have health coverage through work, and women's jobs not only pay less, they're more marginal. Many employers keep part-time hours just below the threshold where laid-off workers can collect unemployment, and the largest group working for minimum-wage jobs is adult women. Those low wages translate into a more meager retirement for women over 65, a healthy percentage of unmarried women in that pool of untapped potential voters. And to single women, the meaning of homeland security may be more about not having to worry about getting raped at gunpoint than "Star Wars" and missile shields.
Now that he has the nomination sewed up due in no small part to courting the male veteran's vote, maybe Kerry will rethink his strategy and engage in a little girl talk. The new JFK needs to think a little more like the old JFK, who signed the Equal Pay Act surrounded by women. That's not pandering, it's good politics.
Martha Burk is a political psychologist who heads the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., a think tank focusing on the wisdom of providing for equal treatment of women in society.
Copyright 2004 TomPaine.com