I’ve written in the past about the demographic problems facing the Republican Party, especially during presidential years. My basic point is that Republicans do best with demographic groups that are contracting and worst with demographic groups that are expanding. Which means the GOP faces systemic, not just transitory, challenges.
A recent story in the New York Times highlights just one of the demographic groups that is both growing and becoming less reliably Republican: single women. Here are some facts, as laid out in the Times story:
- Half of all adult women over the age of 18 are unmarried—56 million, up from 45 million in 2000.
- Single women now account for one in four people of voting age. In 2012, 58 percent of single women voted. (During this year’s mid-term, this number could slide by one-third, to roughly 39 percent, according to the Voter Participation Center. Many unmarried women do not turn out to vote during non-presidential elections.)
- Single women have become Democrats’ most reliable supporters, behind African-Americans.
- In 2012, two-thirds of single women who voted supported President Obama.
“You have a group that’s growing in size, and becoming more politically concentrated in terms of the Democrats,” according to Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.
Single women tend to be socially liberal–but, according to the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, “the issues they really care about are economic.” Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer at the Center for American Progress, says unmarried women, and especially unmarried mothers, have greater economic vulnerability.
To be sure, Republicans can win presidential elections without carrying a majority of single women. (Among married women, a slim majority supported Mitt Romney, while he won the male vote by eight points.) But it will be tough to win those elections if the Republican nominee for president loses the female vote by 12 points and single women by 36 points, as was the case in 2012.
I wouldn’t advise, and because I’m a social conservative I wouldn’t want, the GOP to become a socially liberal party. But that doesn’t mean certain things can’t be done. They include giving more prominent public roles to responsible women in the party (for example, Kelly Ayotte and Cathy McMorris Rodgers). It means nominating a presidential candidate who is principled but not seen as the aggressor on social issues. Grace and a gladsome spirit beat a zealous and judgmental one. And it means putting cultural issues in the context of a decent and humane social order.
In addition, Republicans would be wise to enlarge the social issues they speak about. Liberals and the elite press will want to keep the focus on issues like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Republicans need to counter by speaking in compelling ways about the intellectual and moral education of the young, about education as the civil-rights struggle of this generation, and protecting children from harm, including drug use and standing against drug legalization. They need to speak about an agenda focused on social mobility and helping people gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in a 21st century economy. Republicans also need to make it clear they want to strengthen, rather than weaken, the social safety net, including about the purposes of government in ways that reassures rather than unnerves people, especially those who are most vulnerable.
The GOP is hardly in danger of disappearing; in fact, it looks very much like it will take control of the Senate in addition to maintain control in the House. The Republican Party still possesses considerable strengths. The public is highly skeptical of much of the agenda of the Democratic Party. It helps, of course, that the Obama presidency is breaking apart and so, in many respects, is liberalism. Which means voters, including single women, are likely to give a fresh look to Republicans. It’ll be interesting to see what they find, how welcome they feel, and how they respond.