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Unmarried women were among Barack Obama’s most loyal supporters in 2008, turning out in droves and delivering 70 percent of their votes to him. When many of them stayed home in the 2010 midterm election, Democrats lost the House and had their Senate majority trimmed.
Now, determined to get single women back, Senate leaders are reshaping their legislative agenda, advancing a bill to bolster workers’ ability to win pay discrimination lawsuits. A similar measure was blocked by Republicans two years ago, and proponents expect it to be rejected again, setting up a contrast between the parties over an issue that especially touches unmarried women.
It will be the third time this year that Senate Democrats will push for votes on policies affecting women, with the other measures focused on insurance coverage for contraceptives and programs for domestic violence victims.
They are aiming to fire up the 55 million single, divorced, separated or widowed U.S. women eligible to vote this year. While 60 percent of all unmarried women cast ballots in 2008, just 38 percent turned out in 2010, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Democratic strategists see these voters as critical to helping return Obama to the White House and to retain Senate seats in Ohio, Virginia and other states.
“What is really at issue is their turnout rate,” Lake said in an interview. “Unmarried younger women plummeted in the turnout in 2010, and they came into this election cycle not very interested in the election.”
While the Democrats’ legislation could appeal to a variety of women voters, regardless of marital status, single women who on average have lower household income than married women might pay particular attention to pocketbook measures such as the pay discrimination bill.
“For unmarried women, paycheck fairness is one of their top economic issues,” Lake said. “These women are feeling very economically marginalized.”
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said Democratic candidates have a stronger appeal to single women, who he said “are much more likely to support Obama.”
Newport said unpublished Gallup data from 8,000 interviews with voters April 11 to 29 showed that Obama had a six-point advantage over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with women voters. Among unmarried women, it was a 26-point advantage, he said. Romney had a seven-point advantage among men.
The 2010 midterm slide in voting among unmarried women was evident in states important to this year’s presidential and Senate contests, as Democrats seek to retain a majority in the Senate, which they control with 53 of 100 seats. This includes states where Senate seats held by Democrats may turn over, such as Virginia, where turnout among single women dropped 34 percent; Ohio, with a 23 percent drop; and Florida, with a 21 percent decline, Lake said.
Single women make up 25 percent of the adult population, and they are a large share of eligible voters. In 2010, 53.1 million unmarried women were eligible to vote, compared with 56.4 million married women. This year, 55 million unmarried women are eligible.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the only female Senate Democratic leader and chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is playing an advisory role on legislation aimed at women voters. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the legislation goes beyond election- year messaging and that the measures are meant to address women’s needs.
“The issues are really what’s driving it,” said Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman. If voters notice, “it just shows that people are tuned in and getting an accurate view of where each side stands.”
The women-focused legislation trend began with a vote in March on a Republican proposal allowing employers to refuse to provide health-insurance coverage for birth control for moral or religious reasons. All but three Democrats voted against the measure, and party leaders used the vote to assert that Republicans were embarking on a “war on women.”
House Democrats weighed in late last month as Republicans controlling the chamber passed a measure preventing the U.S. student-loan interest rate from doubling July 1. To cover the cost, the legislation would take $5.9 billion from a preventive care fund, which House Speaker John Boehner called “one of the slush funds” in the 2010 health care overhaul. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi fired back that the move would be “another assault on women’s health” as the fund provided care for women.
Debate in both chambers on legislation reauthorizing aid to domestic violence victims was seen by Democrats as another chance to appeal to women. A bill passed by the Republican-led House wouldn’t extend the same assistance to illegal immigrants, gays and Native Americans as the Senate bill. As negotiators try to work out differences, Democrats are emphasizing the differences between the chambers.
The forthcoming debate on the pay-discrimination bill will matter to single women, pollster Lake said. The measure, introduced by Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, increases potential damages to plaintiffs in pay-discrimination suits and enhances the burden on employers to show pay disparities aren’t gender-based. An identical measure failed to advance in the Senate two years ago, as debate was blocked on a 58-41 vote with 60 votes needed.
Mikulski said women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, which she called evidence that a pay gap still exists 49 years after the Equal Pay Act became law.
“We want to ensure that we close the loopholes that have existed since then,” she said at a news conference with other female Democratic senators this week.
In 2010, the median annual earnings of unmarried women age 25 years and older who worked full time and year-round were $35,000, compared with $40,000 for married women, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Lake has identified groups of voters she calls the “rising American electorate” that includes unmarried women, adults younger than 29, blacks and Latinos, who taken together account for 111 million eligible voters for this year’s election. That’s about 53 percent of all eligible voters nationwide. Unmarried women are the biggest segment.
Democrats in Congress have been trying to target legislation to members of these groups, and the verdict is still out on whether that’s an effective strategy, said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“There’s serious electioneering going on here,” she said. “Democrats are trying hard to reconstruct the base. A lot of appeals have been made in recent weeks to do that. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be effective.”
For their part, Republican leaders are trying to blunt Democrats’ contention that the party supports measures that work against women’s interests and instead turn the media spotlight back to the economy.
House Republicans this week started a “women’s policy committee,” comprised of all 24 women Republicans in the chamber, that will focus on how women are affected by unemployment and taxation, rather than the issues pushed by Democrats.
In the Senate, Republicans are trying to move some of these issues off the agenda. When the Senate considered the Violence Against Women Act, Republican leaders decided not to block the measure’s advancement, though some had concerns about its constitutionality and other matters. It passed, 68-31. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted last week a final version will pass both chambers.
“I’m confident that we’ll renew the Violence Against Women Act,” he told reporters. “As you may recall, it passed the Senate a few years ago on a voice vote. This is not something about which there should be any real controversy.”
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