Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Why Do Married Women Vote Republican?

Aug 7, 2012

Why Do Married Women Vote Republican?


Mitt Romney TV ad from the primary campaign featuring his wife Ann.

An article in today’s New York Times takes on one of the enduring mysteries of recent American politics: Why do single women vote for Democrats in such greater numbers than married women? Single women, predictably, are suffering more than married women in this protracted recession. So if the election is essentially a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, as so many pundits tell us, then the polling should show singles more eager to reject the president. Yet most single women still say they’ll vote for Democrats, while married women trend more to the GOP.

The Times’s reporter Shaila Dawan ends up theorizing that single women assume they’ll go on getting the short end of the economic stick regardless of who is president, so they make up their minds based on social issues, where Obama’s more liberal views are more appealing to them. Perhaps. But Dawan’s evidence is nothing more than a few comments she heard from a few single women.  

Another view comes from an acknowledged expert on the subject, pollster Celinda Lake. She quite rightly looks to the “symbols and images of politics” for an answer. More specifically, she looks to the photos of picture-perfect (usually perfectly white) families, with smiling wives and 2.3 children, that Republican candidates rely on to symbolize the order and domestic tranquility that they hope voters will prize above all else. Mitt Romney is certainly following that well worn path.

One journalist summed up Lake’s view of why this symbolism falls flat with the unmarried: “If you’re a single mom in Alabama struggling to work and take care of a kid alone, it can be grating to have to take in three generations of Romney perfection. ‘That's not the lives of these women,’ Lake says. ‘They are economically marginal, they are short of time, they are juggling, and hoping that one of the balls doesn't fall on their head at any given time.’”

The “grating Romneys” argument is a bit of a stretch, since it’s hard to beat the Obama PR machine for a steady stream of absolutely charming photos of a picture-perfect (though perfectly African-American) family. But Lake is surely right to focus on symbolic images. As political psychologists have shown in so many ways, when most voters of both genders they cast their ballots are usually moved more by such images than by rational analysis of issues.

Perhaps, then, Republicans (with or without family photos) symbolize something that is more valuable to married than to single women. Scholar June Carbone, who has studied the demographic patterns of red and blue voters, suggests that we should ask: “Who's most anxious about family values?” Her answer (in 2010): The most anxious voters are “in Sarah Palin's America,” where divorce and unwed pregnancy rates are the highest. 

If images, not issues, sway voters the most, I’d phrase the question a bit differently: “Who’s most anxious about the difficulty of holding on to images of enduring values and lifestyle patterns, or anything constant, in American life?” But I, too, would look for those worried folks in (to update the imagery) Mitt Romney’s America.

It’s not Romney’s family photos, but Romney himself and all that he symbolizes, that create a reassuring image of constancy, which is what conservatives crave. They got their name precisely because they want to conserve, right? Romney serves them the way all those Currier & Ives prints of rural America used to serve urban and suburban dwellers, who were one or two (or more) generations removed from rural life but hung the prints on their walls to try to mitigate (or perhaps deny) the impact of the change the nation had gone through.

Might this explain why married women vote Republican so much more often than single women? Regardless of the state of the economy, perhaps married women have more of a stake in trying to maintain the status quo -- to ward off change symbolically, when they have little control over it in any practical way.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the most crucial change they hope to ward off is the loss of their married status. Women who suddenly find themselves single typically find themselves in worse financial straits. That can be a huge challenge even in good economic times, and red state women see it happening around them at higher rates than in blue states.

Given the times economic we live in now, divorce can be terrifying for women. So when we’re looking at female voters, if we ask “Who’s most anxious?” as a way of predicting who’s most likely to vote Republican, it wouldn’t be surprising if the answer is: married women.

This is a speculative conclusion, I know. I’d love to see some real research on it. For now, I offer it mainly to point out that when election time rolls around, and we want to understand what’s going on, there’s real value in looking at the kinds of symbolic images that myths are made of. They can often help us unravel electoral puzzles when the more conventional kind of analysis, focused on issues and material interests, just leaves us bafffled.

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