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Analysts: Marital Status Leading Indicator of Political Affiliation for US Women - 2004-09-17


The media have been talking a lot lately about President Bush's post convention bounce. That's the significant lead he's had over Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry ever since the Republican National Convention ended earlier this month with Mr. Bush's formal nomination as the Party's presidential candidate. It turns out that women are primarily responsible for that bounce. Recent polls indicate the two candidates are running neck-and-neck among female voters, but back in August, women gave Mr. Kerry a 14-point lead over Mr. Bush. Both parties have been targeting undecided female voters, but they've been concentrating their efforts on different types of women.

It seems a little archaic, but if you want to guess how an American woman is going to vote, a good way to start might be to take a look at her ring finger. According to recent statistics released by the National Annenberg Election Survey, marital status is a leading indicator of political affiliation? and the contrast is particularly stark among women. More than half of the married women in this country say they approve of how president Bush has handled his presidency. Karen Mills, who's been married for 36 years, is one of them.

"My husband's a stockbroker, and he's probably influencing my vote. He said that we're better off with Bush as far as the economy goes, and I'd have to agree with him," she said.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 54% of the married women in this country say they'll be voting for George Bush this November. In contrast, just 35% of unmarried women say they plan to vote for Mr. Bush, while 60% are like Julia Bechdel, who says her vote is going to go to John Kerry.

"I really dislike Bush's policies. I think his 'No Child Left Behind' educational plan is not only poorly funded, but also really hurting children in America because they're taught to a test as opposed to being taught at their individual levels," he said.

The marriage gap has been around for a while. Pollsters started noticing differences between married and unmarried voters back in the 1980s. But they also noticed differences between male and female voters. And even though the so-called gender gap in politics wasn't quite as big as the marriage gap, it was gender that got all the attention, according to Adam Clymer, political director for the National Annenberg Election Survey.

"You know, there is a field of feminist studies academically, and there isn't nearly as much of a field looking at the political attitudes of married and single people," he said.

But in an election contest as close as this one, both sides are trying to identify and capitalize on their strengthsand that means the marriage gap is getting more attention. Republicans have been looking at married women who work outside the home. Their counterparts who don't have paid careers vote solidly Republican, but married women in the workplace are a mixed bag. And the president's support of flexible work-time hours is meant to appeal to them. In contrast, Democrats have been focusing on unmarried women. Anna Greenberg is a political strategist who's worked on several prominent Democratic campaigns. She says even though the number of unmarried women in this country has gone up considerably in recent decades, unmarried women are still less likely to vote. In 2000, for example, 47% of unmarried women who could have voted didn't. That's 22 million people.

"When you're married, you tend to be integrated into a set of social networks, not the least of which is with your spouse, but also other networks, whether it's in your community, your church, or your workplace, that are politically empowering," she said. "Unmarried people tend to be more socially isolated. They tend to be more economically marginal, and we know that people who are more economically marginal, less educated, more isolated are simply less likely to participate in politics."

And that may be the key to understanding the reasons for the marriage gap. Census data indicate that 57% of the single, female-headed households in this country have an annual income of less than $35,000 a year. Just 26% of married households fall into that categoryand in fact, 57% of married women live in households earning $50,000 a year or more. Adam Clymer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center says these statistics are reflected in voting patterns.

"One can't say for sure, but I think the basic thing is that people who are married are more likely to be in stable economic circumstances. There are two bread-winners," he said. "The worse off people are economically, the more they tend to be more pro-Democratic, and we have a Republican president, so they would be less supportive of him."

But whether that will pan out in this year's election remains yet to be seen. Democrats are certainly working hard at getting unmarried women registered to vote. And they point out that President Bush's post-convention bounce may not be much of a bounce at all, since polls tend to survey only those individuals considered likely to voteand unmarried women who aren't registered yet aren't a part of that group.