More than a week after an historic election, political analysts still are sifting through the results, trying to figure out how different segments of society voted, why they cast their ballots as they did, and what their political preferences and patterns of participation mean for the future.
But three lessons are inescapably clear: The electorate that changed America reflects a changing America — younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and less likely to be married. The largest demographic group within this new American electorate — unmarried women — played a pivotal role in electing Barack Obama as president, building a bigger margin for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and delivering the largest Democratic margins in national politics since 1964.
And, for progressives from the White House to both houses of Congress, there is no more urgent challenge than addressing the needs of unmarried women — especially for economic security — and ensuring that they continue to participate in the political process.
While they usually tend to register and vote less than married people, unmarried women increased their participation this year. Indeed, 20 percent of unmarried women voters cast ballots in their first presidential election this year, compared to 11 percent of all voters. Similarly, unmarried women were more likely than other voters to have recently registered to vote, with 41 percent of these women having registered during the last four years.
In addition to voting in numbers reflecting their presence in the population — 53 million in all and 26 percent of voting-age adults — unmarried women delivered decisive margins for Obama for president and Democratic candidates for the U.S. House, Senate, and public offices at almost every level of government. These women favored Obama over John McCain by a stunning 70-to-29 percent margin, while preferring Democratic candidates for the U.S. House by 63-to-31 percent and for the Senate. In a dramatic indication of how heavily unmarried women supported progressive candidates, Obama's overwhelming 70 percent share of unmarried women's votes was even greater than his 66 percent showing among young voters and his 67 percent of Latino voters.
Unmarried women's crucial role in electing Obama is underscored by the "marriage gap" between their political preferences and those of married women. While unmarried women supported Obama by 41 percentage points, married women favored McCain by 50-to-47 percent for a marriage gap of 44 points. By way of comparison, the gender gap between the preferences of women and men was surprisingly static at 12 percent.
Even more remarkably, in spite of the fact that they overwhelmingly believe that the nation has been "on the wrong track," unmarried women cast their votes in a spirit of hope and purpose, not anger and despair. Seventy-five percent of unmarried women agreed that "this election made me believe average people can help change the country." For these women, change means addressing the most important challenge in their lives — pervasive economic insecurity.
In many ways, these single, separated, divorced and widowed women really are "women on their own." In an unstable economy, more than 40 percent have household incomes of $30,000 or less. In a discriminatory workplace, these women earn 56 cents for every dollar that a married man makes. In the midst of the healthcare crisis, these women are less likely than married people to have health coverage. In a society where it's difficult to balance work and family, more than 10 million are single moms with children at home. And, when they are too old to work, about 25 percent rely on Social Security as their only source of income.
Now, these women are on their own in a housing crisis, a financial crisis, and a deepening recession. They are more vulnerable than married people to foreclosures, layoffs and bankruptcies.
For President-elect Obama and the newly strengthened majorities in the House and Senate, the message of their mandate from unmarried women is clear: Address the issues of creating good-paying jobs, providing equal pay, expanding healthcare coverage, and securing retirement income that motivated these "women on their own" to register and vote in record numbers. For progressives generally, the lesson is even more emphatic: Our top priority must be to keep these women involved in the political process so that a changing electorate can continue to change America.
Page S. Gardner is president of Women's Voices, Women Vote, a national nonpartisan organization.