A story published today by in USA Today asks: "Want to know which candidate a woman is likely to support for president?"
Answer: "Look at her ring finger."
The story says that, according to recent polls, most married women say they'll vote for President Bush. By nearly 2-to-1, unmarried women say they support John Kerry.
The "marriage gap" — the difference in the vote between married and unmarried women — is an astonishing 38 percentage points, according to aggregated USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls. In contrast, the famous "gender gap," the difference in the vote between men and women, is just 11 points.
Ginny Savopoulos thinks she understands why the marriage gap exists.
"I registered Republican when I got married," she says as she walks through Rodney Square in the center of town here. That reflected her husband's political bent and her own sense of economic security. "After I was divorced, I was thinking more about, 'What's out there for me as a single woman?' "
During Bush's tenure, she struggled to find comparable work as a paralegal after she was laid off in 2002, and she's been dismayed by the costs of the Iraq war. She is still registered as a Republican, but she plans to vote for Kerry.
Analysts say the marriage gap is grounded in the different daily lives and cultural outlooks that many married and unmarried women have. Eighty-four years after women won the right to vote — the 19th Amendment took effect on this day in 1920 — that electoral divide is shaping important battlegrounds:
•Republicans are targeting married women who work outside the home. They reliably vote but sometimes support Democrats, sometimes Republicans. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd calls them a key "persuadable group." Married women who don't work outside the home are solidly Republican — a "turnout group."
The president's support for more "flex-time" arrangements is designed to appeal to married women in the workplace, who often feel less pressure for extra pay than they do for extra time with their families. Laura Bush's speech at the Republican National Convention next Tuesday anchors an evening schedule aimed at female voters.
And the campaign last month launched a "W Stands for Women" Web site that pitches George W. Bush on issues such as education; 50,000 supporters have signed up.
•Democrats for the first time are making a concerted effort to persuade single women, most of whom work, to register and go to the polls. The overwhelming majority of never-married, divorced and widowed women already support Kerry, but they have been one of the demographic groups least likely to vote. In 2000, 22 million unmarried women who were eligible to vote didn't do so.
Kerry's pledge to protect jobs and expand health care coverage strikes a chord with many single women. The Democratic National Committee announces a program today called "Take Five" that asks loyalists to persuade five unmarried women who aren't regular voters to go to the polls. A non-partisan group called 1,000 Flowers is organizing voter-registration appeals to single women at beauty salons in eight battleground states.
"You can make some difference in turnout among single women — 1%, 2%, 5%," says Mark Mellman, a pollster and adviser for Kerry. "That may not seem like much, but in a close election it could make all the difference in the world."
Two views of the world
Why do married and unmarried women tend to see the political world so differently?
For one thing, conservative women are more likely to be married, though of course many liberal women are married, too. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says unmarried women as a group start out as more liberal-leaning than married women. And they are often hard-pressed economically.
Most unmarried women — 54% — have annual household incomes below $30,000, according to the Census; that's twice the percentage of married women with incomes that low. Most married women — 51% — have household incomes of $50,000 and above; that's double the number of single women with income that high.
That makes single women more anxious than their married friends about bread-and-butter issues, less confident of having health coverage and more likely to take an expansive view of what the government can and should do to maintain safety-net programs.
Having children seems to intensify views on both sides. Married women with children are even more Republican that those who don't have children; single women who have children are even more Democratic than those who don't.
"Money-wise, it's very hard, especially as a single parent," says Evelyn Ocasio, 34, a widow who supports four children with her job as a receptionist. She is waiting at the edge of Wilmington's downtown square for the bus she takes to work.
"I worry every day, seeing if I can save some money for my retirement, but I really can't because I have to think about my kids," she says.
She supports Kerry but isn't sure whether she'll find time to vote.
Married women, who often have the security of two paychecks in a household, are more likely to cite Bush's leadership against terrorism as a compelling reason to support him.
The suburban women dubbed "soccer moms" in 2000 have been renamed "security moms" in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
One of the TV ads the Bush campaign is airing is aimed straight at them: "I can't imagine the great agony of a mom or a dad having to make the decision about which child to pick up first on September the 11th," the president says.
"Safety, that's No. 1," says Donna Stranahan, 39, who is married and has two children. She and a friend, Kathy Garrett, are on their way back to work after lunch.
"I feel like living in the world today, you have to constantly be looking over your shoulder," agrees Garrett, 46, who is married.
She's enrolled her 10-year-old daughter in a karate class to help ensure she can handle herself.
She is registered as a Democrat but plans to vote for Bush.
"He had the gumption and the nerve to not just sit there and keep getting hit in the face" after 9/11, she says.
She faults President Clinton for not doing enough against terrorism and worries Kerry "seems to say whatever everybody wants to hear." Bush "isn't afraid to react," she says.
Too big to miss
The marriage gap isn't new. In 1984, the difference in the presidential votes of married and unmarried women was 17 percentage points, according to surveys taken as voters left polling places. There was a 21-point marriage gap in 1992, a 29-point gap in 1996, a 32-point gap in 2000.
But the marriage gap didn't seem to get much attention until the hair's-breadth results in 2000 intensified the scrutiny of slices of the electorate and fueled more aggressive efforts to get out the vote — "micro-targeting," it's called in the trade. The divide also has become more powerful as the number of single people has grown and the difference in voting patterns has increased.
"There's been a seismic shift in the demographics of our country," Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says. In 1950, one-third of women ages 15 and older were unmarried; now nearly half are. (There are 62.1 million married women, 52.5 million unmarried ones). There's a "marriage gap" among men, too. Married men support Bush, 56% to 39%, the USA TODAY Poll shows. Unmarried men support Kerry by almost the same margin, 55% to 40%.
But single women have received more attention from strategists because there are more of them — nearly 47 million eligible to vote, compared with 38.4 million men — and because women often settle on a candidate later and are less firmly set on their choice.
Page Gardner, a Democratic consultant in Washington, was intrigued by the "marriage gap" after 2000. Last year, with a friend in San Francisco, she formed a non-partisan group called Women's Voices Women Vote that has financed research into why many unmarried women don't vote. While 68% of married women voted in 2000, just 52% of unmarried women did. The conclusion: Single women often felt their voices weren't heard and didn't count.
The group has combined Census, voting rolls and consumer data to generate lists of nearly 20 million single women in 12 battleground states. Non-partisan groups can borrow the lists to register voters; partisan groups can rent it to target them.
It's possible that single women could be to Democrats what evangelical Christians have become to Republicans: a huge group of people who often haven't been engaged in politics before but hold many views in sync with the party. Efforts to organize evangelicals by the Christian Coalition and other organizations over the past quarter-century have made them a key part of the Republican base.
One difference: Evangelical Christians are organized through their churches into networks that make it easier to identify and reach them. Single women aren't.
One registration at a time
In Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., retired labor lobbyist Ann Hoffman greets five volunteers who show up in a borrowed office for an after-hours phone bank co-sponsored by Women's Voices Women Vote and the USAction Education Fund.
Amy Berger, 48, a lawyer by training who is now a stay-at-home mom, logs on to a Web site that automatically dials phone numbers from a list of unmarried, unregistered women in Pennsylvania as it displays their names, addresses and ages on the screen.
She gets off to a slow start.
The first nine calls reach answering machines and wrong numbers. A 92-year-old woman who answers the 10th call declares, "I'm no longer going to vote," then hangs up. On the 11th call, Berger coaxes a 58-year-old woman in Lebanon, Pa., who had let her registration lapse to sign up again; she registers as a Republican.
Another small victory on the 20th call: Ann Kuhns, 52, a divorced woman from Lititz, Pa., jumps at the chance to register for the first time; she files as a Democrat. "I didn't pay much attention to politics before," Kuhns says in a phone interview later, but this year she "can't wait" to vote for Kerry. She's lost several jobs in the past few years as companies have moved operations abroad, and she sees her mother struggling to afford prescription drugs. "It really matters this year," she says.
At the end of the night, the group's total: 13 new voters registered. One at a time.