The New York Times

June 18, 2004
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Sex and the Single Voter

By BELLA M. DePAULO

SUMMERLAND, Calif.

Want to attract single voters? Drop the underpants.

This should be my moment. I'm a single woman, and at last, the political world has discovered me. People in my demographic, it has been reported, stayed away from the 2000 presidential election in droves, and wow, could we have made a difference if we had shown up. The single women who did make it to the polls supported Al Gore overwhelmingly about two-thirds voted for him, while a little less than one-third voted for George W. Bush, according to surveys.

In contrast, married women split their votes about evenly for Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. But pollsters indicate that 68 percent of them showed up to vote, compared to just 52 percent of the women who were divorced, widowed, or had always been single.

In theory, I like where this is going. I have strong opinions about human health and well-being and about the place of America in the world, and I'm ready to voice them.

To appeal to me, though, the Democratic Party is offering me underwear. The panties sport slogans like "Kiss Bush Goodbye." I can pick them up at nightclubs or PantyWare parties.

Not to be outdone, CNN did a cute segment on "lipstick liberals." A reporter took to the streets to try out her guess about why single women do not vote more often. "Is it scary to think about politics?" she asked a young, successful, single woman.

No, it wasn't.

A pollster, Kellyanne Conway, offered her own explanation: "Women who have what we call the four magic M's marriage, munchkins, mortgages and mutual funds are much more likely to vote than their unmarried, non-stake-holding, non-ownership counterparts." Ms. Conway also had a tip for single women to help them get to the polls: "Pretend it's a hair appointment we would not miss."

I get the message. The political players are not out to engage me in a serious discussion of the issues. As a single woman, I'm too preoccupied with lipstick, hair and underwear. They need to find a way to get me to the polls only this one time. Then, by the next presidential election, perhaps I'll be married and have a mortgage.

I have a different view about 2000. I don't think singles were cowering in fear of politics, or too dazzled by the whirl of their social lives, to get to the polls. I think they were singled out of a system that ignored them. In one of the debates in the 2000 election, a woman from the audience tried to focus the candidates on her demographic. "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 24-year-old single person with no dependents?" she asked. Neither candidate acknowledged that she was one of millions of single voters. Neither promised to fight for the votes of single people. Mr. Bush had the facts on his side; the questioner would keep more of her money under his plan rather than under Mr. Gore's. But Mr. Bush did not mention that. He did, though, describe the great prescription drug plan she would get under Medicare.

Singles are getting another message this year. No matter how many thousands of lives you may have saved with your lifelong, relentless advocacy for safer cars and workplaces, and purer food and water; no matter how doggedly you have pursued the causes of government and corporate accountability, and inspired countless others to do the same, you can still be dismissed as immature and irresponsible if you are not married.

Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC program "Hardball," captured that sentiment when he said this to Ralph Nader about the current president: "He's raised two daughters; he's had a happy marriage. You've never been married. Isn't he more mature in his lifestyle than you are?" The unmarried Mr. Nader, Mr. Matthews said, lives "a life that's about as responsible as what's on the movies tonight."

So what's a candidate to do? Here are four suggestions.

1. Hit the books. Learn about the real place of singles in contemporary American society. Singles account for more than 40 percent of the electorate and work force. Households consisting of two parents and their children are slightly outnumbered by households comprised of a single person living alone. And most singles do not live alone. About nine million households are single-parent homes. Singles are also homeowners. Last year, they accounted for 46.7 percent of house sales. Singles are not predominantly youthful; only a third are aged 18 to 29. Singlehood is no longer a way station on the road to marriage. Women on average now spend more years of their adult lives single than married, and men are not far behind.

2. Learn the actual voting patterns. Despite the hype, it was not single women who had the lowest rate of voting in 2000, but single men. In their candidate preferences, the men stood out in their support of Ralph Nader (7 percent, compared to 4 percent for single women, and 2 percent for married men and women).

3. Master the issues of concern to singles. You will find, for example, that singles would like to make a decent living, have affordable health care and enjoy retirement. Their values are not antifamily they are human values. The language of singles is the language of inclusiveness. Here is an example: "If you are willing to work hard and play by the rules, you are part of our family, and we're proud to be with you." It is from Bill Clinton's 1996 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president.

4. Oh, and about those panties? Kiss them goodbye.

Bella M. DePaulo is a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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