The narrative that emerges from the contest for the 2008 Democratic nomination will likely be a story about women. That's understandable given the major milestone that is the candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Still, I can't help but have some trepidation as I contemplate how that story will be told.
As the Iowa caucuses and the early primaries fast approach, the narrative for the general election will soon begin to take shape. Since 1980, the electoral gender gap -- the fact that women tend to vote for Democratic presidential candidates -- has provided the context for a story that has carried great weight over the last three presidential election cycles. Suburban white women, all referred to condescendingly as "moms," were presumed by journalists to be the all-important swing voters who ultimately decide who wins the White House. This time around, the story of women voters who matter may be a bit different. Enter the "single anxious female."
She's certainly a departure from the soccer moms of 1996 and the security moms of 2004, which received their fair share of media play. But the problem with these "moms" always was that as meaningful categories of voters, they're myths. So explained Rutgers Professor Susan J. Carroll at a conference called "Women and News" that took place last week at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
The gender gap is real, said Carroll, a scholar at Rutgers' Center for the American Woman and Politics. But in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the subcategories of soccer mom and security mom served only to help frame a narrative that left out the majority of American women, and conveniently eliminated from the discussion any of women's concerns beyond their maternal roles. So-called soccer and security moms' stories were comfortable for the writer to tell and a male reader to hear, since these women are all about their kids -- not about their jobs or reproductive rights. When the overarching election narrative is framed this way, Carroll said, the non-family concerns of women voters "are erased from public view."
The single female voter, on the other hand, brings those concerns into stark relief. Single women between the ages of 18 and 44 have lousy economic prospects; nearly half earn less than $30,000 per year, according to polling by Lake Research Associates for the Women's Voices: Women Vote project. They tend to be cynical, Lake reports, and are likely, say Lake and other experts, to believe that government should provide support to citizens. They don't like the war in Iraq, and according to one recent survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 78 percent say the country's "on the wrong track." Unlike the soccer moms and security moms of yore, they are not a white monolith. I have yet to see polling data on whether these single women are, in fact, "anxious." But more about that later.
"More than 20 million unmarried women did not vote in 2004," wrote Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez last week. "Capture their votes and take the oath of office -- or so goes the theory." Sanchez quoted from the Greenberg report, which reads, "(U)nmarried women may play the same role for Democrats in 2008 that white evangelicals played for George Bush and the Republicans in 2004." And so we find both Clinton and her closest rival, Barack Obama, clearly vying for the votes of single women.
Obama is selling himself to women as one who understands the concerns of single mothers, since he was raised by one. According to 2002 U.S. Census figures, nearly one-fourth of children under the age of 18 were being raised by single moms. With an apparently stable marriage himself, Obama offers the potential to enlarge the narrative of the women's vote to include women of varying marital status, race, and class.
Perhaps the most loaded story to emerge from the Clinton-Obama primary contest will be that of the votes of African American women, whose presence as voters has just begun to register in the mind of the majority culture, despite the dominance of the women's vote story over the last election cycles. But African American women made a critical difference in several races that gave the Congress back to the Democrats in 2006, particularly in the Virginia Senate race. African Americans are heavily represented among single women being targeted by Democrats. Nationally, a CBS News poll shows Clinton with a 15-point lead over Obama among black women, mostly, according to CBS reporter Michelle Peltier, because they think she can beat the Republican, and are less certain of Obama's chances. I do fear the media are likely to frame the story of Democratic primary voters as one of "allegiance" to one's own sex or race, rather than one of rational and intelligent decision-making.
The 1996 soccer mom moniker was the product of the brain of Bill Clinton's pollster Mark Penn, who is playing a prominent role in Hillary Clinton's campaign. The term "single anxious female" was first reported on the lips of one of Hillary Clinton's close advisers, Ann Lewis. While this seems like a good strategy for targeting long-neglected voters, the use of the word "anxious" chips away at the positive impact the focus on single women voters could have on the framing of the 2008 contest.
While the male voter is portrayed, by turns, as assertive, angry, or just righteously disgusted by those whose views he dislikes, the defining characteristic of the buzz-worthy female voter, be she married and affluent or single and barely hanging on, is that of fretfulness. In the past three presidential election cycles, she's been described as anxious for the safety and well-being of her children. Once the single woman -- especially the one without children -- becomes the focus of the journalists' search for the critical voting bloc, will her "anxiety" become a synonym for selfishness? Are we merely months away from the depiction of the season's most important voter as a neurotic and bitter creature?
In the story of the single woman voter lies the potential to tell a far more comprehensive and accurate story of the state of the republic than has existed in the artfully constructed tales of the well-off and married swing voter who never really swung. Or it could simply become a way of dismissing the rational concerns of women for their long-term prospects as just another form of feminine fearfulness -- nothing a little psychiatric pharmacology can't cure.