Politico: Single moms Obama’s X–factor?

June 3, 2012

President Barack Obama has recently devoted a lot of time to firing up the “X” factor and wooing women voters. He “grew up as the son of a single mom,” Obama reminded Barnard graduates during his commencement address at the women’s college, “who struggled to put herself through school and make ends meet.”

His team surely knows that if single mothers like the president’s show up in November, they could make up his margin for victory, even as the most recent ABC News/Washington Post polling shows Romney gaining among women. Unmarried women supported Obama by far more than 2 to 1 in 2008 and now make up fully one quarter of America’s eligible voters.

In a year when women’s votes are more critical than ever, turning out this group — many of whom juggle at least one job while raising children — might matter most.

“This is going to be one of the most major demographic groups going forward,” said Celinda Lake, who has been tracking the growth of what the Voter Participation Center calls the “Rising American Electorate,” including unmarried women and other “historically underrepresented” groups, “because of the seismic shifts in the population.”

Numbers bear this out. America is now home to a record 53 million unmarried women, up 19 percent in the past decade. Single mothers’ ranks have climbed alongside this growth, rising from 8.5 million in 2000 to more than 10 million today. If these women show up at the polls, they usually vote Democratic.

During the GOP primaries, former Sen. Rick Santorum charged that the ‘biggest problem with the poverty of America” is the “breakdown of the American family.” Santorum called single mothers the “base” of the Democratic Party. This was not intended as a compliment to the Democratic coalition that elected Obama in 2008.

But Santorum’s view of their role in the Democratic base is not incorrect: Unmarried women broke by an overwhelming 70 percent to 29 percent for Obama over Sen. John McCain in 2008. Single moms, who made up 4 percent of the electorate that year, logged a healthy 55.8 percent turnout.

That number dropped by nearly half in 2010 — when the House GOP captured women’s votes for the first time in decades. But recent polling shows that all the talk about them, plus the debate about women’s health freedoms and the economic wallop delivered by the Great Recession, may lead single moms back to the polls — and the president — come November.

“Unmarried women with children are probably the most progressive voters in the country,” said Page Gardner, founder and president of the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, “and so their values are progressive and they will have an increasing influence on the kinds of candidates that get elected. Given their numbers among unmarried women, we are very much focused on single moms.”

It’s not just their swelling numbers — it’s their location. Single mothers’ ranks have spiked in a number of swing states. So where could they make a difference?

“Any state that has a large population of single mothers, such as North Carolina, Nevada and Ohio,” said Lake. “Any state that is very close, where this population is a big population.”

You can bet their demographic surge in those states will not be lost on either the Obama campaign or progressive organizations. Groups like Working America already are focused on how they can help unmarried women reach the polls this fall. Some of their grass-roots, get-out-the-vote leaders are single mothers, who will likely encourage other single mothers to vote.

Women, said Karen Nussbaum, a veteran union organizer who heads Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate with 3 million members, “are under tremendous economic strain. They are responsible for the health care, the education, their own retirement, all of the responsibilities in the family — which is true for women overall, but on steroids for single mothers.”

Turnout, Nussbaum said, “depends on whether single mothers and others among our membership — working class and middle-class voters — hear anybody talking about their lives and offering anything that makes sense.”

One mother already in touch with the Working America organizers says she is ready to help turn out women like her.

“I am definitely, definitely, definitely going to vote, and I am trying to encourage others to vote,” says Laura Vennard, 34, a single mother of two teenage girls. Vennard just graduated from college in her native New Mexico after working for years as a waitress. She says she has applied for countless jobs — with no results.

“Barack Obama has a little more in common with me than Mitt Romney and his wife,” Vennard said, “because Barack Obama was raised by a single mother.”

Certainly economics will be center stage for anyone seeking to win the votes of this expanding group. The recession has brutalized the monthly budgets of many one-parent households. Annual earnings of the median single parent family fell a full 20 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, compared to a painful but far smaller 5 percent drop for two-parent families.

In December 2007, unemployment for single moms was 6.9 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center. That number hit 12.4 percent last September and remains well above the national average of 10.9 percent as of May.

“It is hard to make ends meet,” said Corinne Weyer, a home health aide worker who lives with her 7-year-old son in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Minnesota district and needs food stamps to get by, despite her job. “Every cent goes to keeping us afloat.”

Weyer says she will help Working America’s voter outreach efforts but admits that the results may not be what the Obama campaign would like.

“I am not overly impressed with him,” Weyer said of Obama, “but I will give him another four years. … I don’t believe there will be as high a turnout as there was in 2008. But I don’t believe people are going to stay home, either.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” She analyzed public policy for PIMCO, after working as a journalist for the ABC News Political Unit and “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” She is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylelemmon.