In a midterm election that's expected to hinge on the demographic composition of the electorate, single women could be the key to Democratic chances to hold on to the Senate in November.
While Republicans have a longstanding problem with female voters, this year it's Democrats who have the more urgent problem: how to get their most reliable female supporters to become more reliable voters.
Here are five things to know about single female voters.
They're Not Up For Grabs
Unmarried women are the single most important demographic this year. But unlike other "it" demographics (remember soccer moms?), single women are not a constituency that's in play: They're extremely reliable Democratic supporters.
In 2012, Barack Obama won the overall women's vote because of them. Mitt Romney actually won married women — by 7 points. But Obama crushed him with unmarried women, winning that cohort by a whopping 36 percentage points.
Single women make up about 25 percent of the electorate, and they're growing fast as marriage rates decline. But while they are reliable supporters for the Democrats — that is, when they vote — they are not reliable voters: Between 2008 and 2010, the participation of unmarried women fell by about 20 points. And between 2012 and 2014, single women's participation is expected to drop off by about the same rate.
So single women present Democrats with a turnout problem, not a persuasion problem. In that sense, they exemplify the Democrats' electoral dilemma. The party has built a mighty coalition for presidential elections — young people, women and minorities — but that coalition all but evaporates in midterm elections. If Democrats are going to re-create their presidential coalition in midterm years, single women are a good place to start, because ...
Unlike minority voters, who are underrepresented in many of the whiter, rural red states that form this year's Senate battleground, single women can be found in numbers in every state and region.
They're Very Expensive To Mobilize
Single women are hard to target and turn out.
They're economically stressed. They work all the time, they take care of their kids, and they're disaffiliated — they're not involved with community groups. They're more secular, attending church less often than married women.
Because they were the hardest-hit by the recession, single women are more mobile and more likely to be renters — which means they're more easily disenfranchised. That matters a great deal, because the more stable a voter, the easier he or she is to target, register and turn out.
Democrats have an agenda tailored to women's concerns — focusing on the minimum wage, pay equity, college affordability, reproductive issues and sexual assault — but that doesn't mitigate the turnout obstacles that single women present.
Virginia Is The Model
Democrats point to the state of Virginia as evidence that it's possible to re-create — to some extent — the Obama presidential coalition in an off-year election.
In the 2013 governor's race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the married women's vote to Republican Ken Cuccinelli. But McAuliffe won the unmarried women's vote by an astounding 42 points. He did it by stressing reproductive rights and the "Republican war on women." Can Democrats do that elsewhere without uncompromising social conservatives like Cuccinelli on the Republican ticket?
North Carolina Is The State To Watch
Unlike other red states where Democratic Senate incumbents are in trouble, North Carolina is a state that Barack Obama actually won — in 2008. He lost it narrowly four years later.
North Carolina has a large African-American population and a higher than average percentage of unmarried women. It also has a larger than average percentage of unmarried female voters who failed to show up in 2010 after voting in 2008.
All of that suggests there's lots of potential in the state for Democrats. If front-runner Thom Tillis, the GOP state House speaker, ends up as Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's opponent, he'll be framed as the leader of the war on women — and the state Legislature's enactment of limits on legal abortion will be highlighted.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Women are underrepresented among major corporate CEOs.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
They are also underrepresented in Congress, though their numbers have grown, until they now make up roughly one-fifth of Congress.
INSKEEP: But there is one powerful group where women are a clear majority. It's the electorate: people who can vote.
MONTAGNE: Women make up 53 percent of that group, and this week, we bring several stories under the headline She Votes.
INSKEEP: We'll examine how both parties try to win over women. And today, we start with a look at a particularly sought after group: unmarried women. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: If you want to understand single women and politics, you need to talk to Page Gardner at the Voter Participation Project.
PAGE GARDNER: We've been studying unmarried women voters for about 10 years now.
LIASSON: And why?
GARDNER: Because they determine elections. They're 25 percent of the electorate. They're growing at a faster rate than married women, and they can determine who is and who is not elected.
LIASSON: And this year, unmarried women, more than any other group, could determine who controls the U.S. Senate. Along with young people and minorities, single women are part of the mighty coalition that helps Democrats win presidential elections. Single women were the key to success for Barack Obama in 2012. He lost married women by seven points to Mitt Romney, but won the women's vote overall because he carried unmarried women by a whopping 36 percent. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
CELINDA LAKE: They vote overwhelmingly Democratic, if they vote. But that's the big issue. They drop off in enormous numbers. And, in fact, the estimate is that there will be 10.5 million unmarried women who drop off between 2012 and 2014.
LIASSON: From 2008 to 2010, the single women's vote dropped by over 20 points, and Lake expects the same thing will happen this year. This is a big problem for Democrats, and it's why they're pushing an agenda tailored to these women's concerns: minimum wage, pay equity, sexual assault, the safety net, college affordability and birth control. Page Gardner.
GARDNER: Forty-nine percent of all workers who make minimum wage or sub-minimum wage are unmarried women, so their lives are stretched and stressed. They want affordable childcare. They need pay equity. They need a stop to pregnancy discrimination in the workforce. These women need policies and candidates who understand their lives.
LIASSON: North Carolina is one of the most important Senate battleground states this year. It happens to be a state where unmarried women make up a larger-than-average share of the population, and where the share of single women who didn't show up to vote in off-year elections is also larger than average. So, last week, I went to Durham, North Carolina to listen to a group of single women hosted by Women Advance N.C., a non-partisan advocacy group. Valerie Evans is a mom and marathon runner who works in higher education.
VALERIE EVANS: Education is really a big issue for me, but also women's right to choose. But I wouldn't say that I'm an activist - until last summer, when the legislation was going through impacting women's rights to choose in North Carolina. It really fired me up.
LIASSON: Democrats call these reproductive policies the Republicans' war on women, and they're hoping that message will motivate voters like Valerie Evans. But just as important is an economic message to engage women like Cara Davies and Ashley Perveiler.
CARA DAVIES: I'm working in retail right now. I have a college degree, and I'm working at Macy's in the lady's shoe department. And every day it just, it kills me. I look at my college diploma every day, and I'm just like, what am I doing? I'm $30,000 in debt. I'm 23 years old. Like, it's insane.
ASHLEY PERVEILER: Like you, I have a college degree. I'm in massive debt. It took me over a year to find a job, and I relied on programs during that time. My son received services from the early intervention program. He had Medicaid as a secondary insurance. And those types of programs helped me get to where I am today, which is able to take care of myself and my family.
LIASSON: These are women who have all voted for Democrats in presidential elections, but they are less engaged this year. Hannah Jernigan isn't sure why.
HANNAH JERNIGAN: I don't know. I guess I feel like I had more information about it. Maybe it was just more hyped up than it was than local elections, and it got me excited. I mean, I feel very patriotic whenever it's presidential election time. Like, I feel like I'm a true American, like, I am going out there to vote. I don't know why it's different in local elections. I think it is just I don't hear about it as much.
LIASSON: This year, when these women do hear about politics, they don't like it.
JERNIGAN: But, you know, the only thing I've heard about recently are the negative ads that are being shown, and then I just - you know, I don't even pay those any attention because it's coming from the, you know, whatever American for Americans group or something like that, you know? Like, it's only been negative things.
PERVEILER: You know, every once in a while, you turn on the TV, and all you see is a negative thing, and you say, never mind.
LIASSON: Single women like these, economically stressed and turned off by politics, are the Democrats' prime targets, but they're hard to organize, because they're disaffiliated, meaning they don't go to church as much as married women or belong to other community groups. Celinda Lake says registering these women and turning them out to vote is very hard to do.
LAKE: One of the things we're facing this year is the potential for even greater drop-off than usual, because unmarried women have been hit very hard in this economy. They are more mobile, so they get disenfranchised more. They're more likely to be renters.
LIASSON: In 2012, the Obama campaign developed a set of sophisticated, high-tech tools to track down and mobilize voters. This year, the Democrats are updating those tools. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has developed a new computer model called ROSIE, for Rosie the Riveter. It stands for Reengaging Our Sisters in Elections. Kelly Ward is the executive director of the DCCC.
KELLY WARD: We can identify a voter by their marital status, and then match that to a turnout model that helps us identify those unmarried woman who, when they vote, they will vote for Democrats, but are not likely to vote this cycle. We want to go after those voters and start a conversation with them about how this election has a stake in their lives and why they should care about it.
LIASSON: Republicans are trying to woo unmarried women, too, with a softer tone and proposals on issues like school choice. But the task isn't as urgent for them this cycle. Republicans have an advantage with married women, and that's accentuated in off-year elections because married women tend to show up and vote in midterms, as well as presidential years. Christine Matthews is a Republican pollster.
CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: The unmarried women are really the Democrats' challenge for 2014. Republicans win married women. But what the challenge is, is that when we win married women, we win them by seven points. And in presidential years, the Democrats have been winning unmarried women by 36 points. So, the Democrats need those kind of numbers in an off-year.
LIASSON: That won't happen, but even limiting the drop-off rate of single women could help Democrats hang onto some Senate seats in November. Republicans have a serious long-term problem with women voters in general, but this year it's Democrats who have the more pressing problem, as they try to get some of their most reliable female supporters to become reliable voters. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.