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Anxious about "Single Anxious Women"

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

[Today's Guest Pollster's column comes from Margie Omero, President of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm based in Washington, DC.]

It's almost official. Single women are poised to be the "Security Mom" or "Soccer Mom" of the 2008 election. They even have their own easy to remember moniker: the "Single Anxious Female." At first blush, it seems like a good thing for women. A woman top-tier candidate, a focus on women's issues and women's voters - it must be a good thing, right?

Actually, much of what you read about single women and voting is not borne out by the data. There is indeed a "Marriage Gap" among women. Married people vote at a higher rate than non-married people. But the marriage gap is actually larger among men. According to Census reports from the 2004 election, married men are as likely to vote (63% turnout) as married women (65%). But unmarried men (which includes single, divorced, separated, and widowed) are substantially less likely to vote (46%) than unmarried women (55%). The marriage gap is 10 points among women, and is nearly twice that (18 points) among men.

If you look specifically at single, never-married adults, this pattern holds. A majority of single women voted in 2004 (52%), compared to fewer single men (43%). This is even true with 18 to 24 year-olds (47% of single women in that group vote, compared to 40% of single men). The table below shows the turnout rate by gender and marital status. [Note: at the time of this post, the Census table contained an error, in that Row 88 (widowed men 18-24) should be blank, and all data currently in Rows 88-91 should be moved down one row. The error was corrected by email from the Census, but has not yet been updated on the site.]

omerocensusdata.png

You would never know about women's higher turnout by examining the press coverage. A CNN piece this month called single women, particularly younger single women, "notoriously difficult to get to the polling booth." An entire organization is devoted to closing the marriage gap among women . And women's advocates hypothesize about why single women don't turn out, making their own gender-based assumptions about women not recognizing their power.

More disturbingly, however, is what this focus on single women has wrought. Dubbed "Single Anxious Female," that cringe-inducing name has stuck, and has generated a sizable amount of press devoted to the caricature of the single woman. This group has become defined not by political views, but by their lack of gravitas. Several have called them the "Sex in the City voter". Feminist icon Naomi Wolf says they are more like Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," as compared to Hillary's Sigourney Weaver. The CNN piece said this group is "more interested in showing off than in true political activism" and cited others who called single women "slutty" or "stupid." Advocacy has begotten dismissiveness.

Now, encouraging non-voters to vote is obviously important, and the point here is not to object to women-specific voting programs. And certainly campaigns should continue to reach out to women. But we need to change tactics. First, let's use the data correctly. Women vote at a higher rate than men. Unmarried women, however defined, vote at a higher rate than unmarried men. And this pattern holds across age groups. Second, it does not further the cause to allow women to be called anxious, show-offs, bubbly, stupid, or confused. These characterizations only perpetuate stereotypes about women, rather than work to improve our status.

 

Comments
Jesse:

I think you're missing the real point of the focus on single women (as opposed to single men). They are solidly partisan (Democratic), and therefore a sizable increase in their turnout would potentially shift the outcome of our next election.
Single men, on the other hand, are a harder group to peg down. Men tend to skew Republican. But unmarrieds tend to skew Democratic, as do young voters. So how would a "typical" young, single, male voter vote? I think it's hard to say. Not so with a young, single, female voter - she's voting D all the way.
That's why the focus on single female voters is logical, more so than on single males. It's similar to the focus on evangelical Christians, as opposed to, say, mainline Protestants. Since evangelicals tend to vote together, their turnout rate can determine the outcome.

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Mark Mehringer:

That's some misleading analysis. Omero suggests that the defining variable in her data for lower turnout is married vs. not married. In fact, younger voters make up a greater share of the not-married category, and have consistently lower turnout. If you take age (or generation) out of the equation, then maybe marriage provides a slight bump for turnout, but nothing near the 10 to 18 points Omero suggests.

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Chris S.:

I've always wondered, is this focus on specific demographic groups (soccer moms, Nascar dads, etc.) somewhat misguided? Pollsters love to break down their samples into demographic groups based on race, sex, etc. But in terms of how campaigns can best pitch their message, is demography truly king, or does it make more sense to divide up the electorate based on ideology or favored issues, regardless of the particular demographic divisions?

In other words, if I'm running a campaign, and I have a complete profile of the undecided voters, would I say "60% of the undecideds are women, so I run ads that appeal to women" (whatever the heck that means), or would I more likely say "60% of the undecideds rate the economy as the top issue, so I should run ads about the economy that appeal to those voters, regardless of what demographic group they fit in"?

I fear that, in an effort to put some sort of a human face on "the undecided voter", the news media just shovels us this stuff about a particular demographic group being the key to the election, based on nothing more than the fact that that group is a few percentage points more likely than average to be in the undecided camp. I've yet to see any evidence that looking at things that way is the sensible way to approach it.

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Margie Omero:

Thanks for your comments Jesse & Mark. Jesse, you're right that there are partisan differences across gender & marital groupings. Others, such as Langer at ABC, have noted that. But regardless of partisan leanings, the coverage still suggests that not-married women are somehow missing at the polls, which is not true relative to their male cohorts. Further, while I don't doubt that women will be key to this election, political coverage that trivializes women just doesn't sit well with me.

As far as Mark's comment: I agree that age is the larger force in predicting voter turnout, and did not mean to suggest otherwise. I simply wanted to point out that women are voting at a higher rate across all marital status categories. (By the way, this pattern holds across every age group, except for widowed adults 75+, and married, but spouse absent adults 65+.)

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Alain:

Very interesting points.

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Danette:

I am sorry but this shouldn't be posted here, or anywhere for that matter. It is garbage for analysis. Guest columns should be used for serious discussions from serious pollsters, not something this trite.

As for the comments above, both hit the nail on the head. Omero's analysis is flawed and misleading, and she fully ignores the two-to-one partisan voting patterns of single women. Shouldn't a female pollster at a minimum understand their audience? Garbage. Her posting should be removed from the site.

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Roy:

Is there a coded message here? I cannot imagine what in Omero's critique of press coverage sent Danette into a foaming-at-the-mouth warp spasm.

The basic problem here has little to do with single women: demographic micro-analysis satisfies pundits' desire for a story that seems new and less dry than the usual pollsing numbers. Once someone has handed them a group to play with, they either misunderstand the data because they're not very smart or (more likely) garble it in order to appeal to a maximally stupid audience. Thus single women become Sex in the City sluts (having married a single woman, I find these characterizations insulting).

Finally, Ms. Omero, do you know Margie Novera? She's quite the stats whiz.

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dan:

"hey, lookie over here!" while the sideshow of SATC moniker is catchy for cable news, omero reveals some interesting observations on m and f voting patterns. more, please!

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JJ:


yup! now Salon wades in...

http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/

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