First there were the soccer moms who gave Bill Clinton a boost in 1996. Then came the security moms who turned out for the GOP in 2002. This year the most desperately sought female voters don't have a catchy title, but some Democrats are convinced that they could help swing the election. They're America's 46 million unmarried women -- a group that ranges from never-marrieds just out of college to single mothers, middle-aged divorcées, and widows. Despite their differences, these women have two things in common: deep economic insecurity and a tendency to turn out for Democrats when they vote -- by a 30-percentage-point margin in some polls.
The prospect of shaping Sideline Singles into a voting bloc has liberal activist groups in a lather. After all, says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, if unmarried women had voted in the same proportions as their wedded sisters in 2000, some 6 million more voters would have gone to the polls -- and most would have punched the chad for Al Gore. So organizations ranging from NARAL Pro-Choice America to the Committee to ReDefeat the President are burning up the phone lines to tap a potential mother lode of support.
But turning apathetic unmarrieds into this year's political It Girls will involve one extreme makeover. Single women tend to be poorer, are more likely to be members of a minority, and juggle complicated work and family schedules -- all of which makes it hard to get them to the polls. And politics isn't a big factor in their lives. Participants in Greenberg's focus groups said they have little time to read up on candidates and issues and don't think politicians are likely to improve their circumstances. "Most of these women haven't really fared better under one party than the other," says Susan A. MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Still, the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry, is pushing policies that could strike a chord. He backs an increase in the minimum wage and expanded health coverage for the uninsured. A strong backer of abortion rights, the senator is also emphasizing the importance of pay equity.
But Kerry's policies seem crafted more for the middle class than for unmarried women, 29% of whom earn less than $15,000 a year, according to Greenberg. Kerry has yet to talk about requiring companies to provide paid family leave. And one proposal from the disbanded campaign of former General Wesley K. Clark -- expanding tax credits for working poor families -- could make a significant impact on the income of single mothers. But it's absent from Kerry's legislative wish list.
Still, it's probably good politics not to craft a platform around economically insecure voters. Mindful of avoiding the Massachusetts tax-and-spend liberal label, Senator Kerry has shied away from promoting more expensive social programs. "If you really spoke to the issues of poor mothers, you'd come across as crazy liberal," says Jennifer E. Duffy, managing editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.
The Bush campaign, for example, is concentrating on married women voters, 68% of whom went to the polls in 2000. It is running Internet ads featuring First Lady Laura Bush on the Web sites of Ladies' Home Journal and Family Circle. The target audience: married women with children who are concerned about their family's safety. As Representative Kay Granger (R-Tex.) put it at the unveiling of the "W stands for Women" initiative this May: "Today we don't have soccer moms that stand on the sidelines, we have security moms." Counters a Kerry strategist: "There's a great concern among women about what Iraq is costing us at home. They want a plan to get out, and they don't have a lot of confidence that the person who can do that is George Bush."
The biggest push to energize single women is coming from activist groups outside the Kerry campaign. The two-year-old nonprofit Women's Voices, Women Vote has spearheaded the effort, compiling the names of some 24 million single, voting-age women in 12 states. The organization is officially nonpartisan but is partially financed by MoveOn.org and the Heinz Family Foundation, and the groups tapping into its data bank are unmistakably rooting for the Democrats.
The Committee to ReDefeat the President, for example, is calling unregistered women aged 18 to 45 in the swing states of Oregon and Pennsylvania with the goal of registering 1 million new voters by November. NARAL Pro-Choice America is targeting women age 18 to 39, who tend to be particularly receptive to appeals about reproductive choice. And the National Organization for Women has launched the RENEW project -- Register and Empower New Women -- with an emphasis on getting single women in swing states like Florida to the polls this fall. "One of the reasons we keep hearing for not voting is 'politicians don't listen to people like me,"' says NOW President Kim Gandy. "But if we get enough of this demographic to vote, politicians will have to listen. It's about achieving critical mass."
Can an appeal to solidarity break the cycle of apathy? It's not hard to find skeptics. "Getting people to register is the easy part," says MacManus. "Getting them to vote is harder, particularly when you're talking about women with children who are very pressed for time. They really need a motivating factor." But if there ever was a time when small changes in large blocs could make a difference, 2004's neck-and-neck campaign is it.
By Alexandra Starr in Washington