In the soul-searching following an underwhelming electoral performance, Republican leadership will again ask itself how it can attract single women to the GOP. I say “again,” because Republicans have faced this question for a while now. Ten years ago, 67 percent of unmarried women voted Democrat, and this year that number was 68 percent.
Maybe this old problem is garnering fresh attention because Republicans have made inroads elsewhere. In 2012, single men also voted Democrat, but now a majority of them vote Republican.
Perhaps this old problem feels more urgent because single women will make up a growing part of the electorate. The marriage rate is at its lowest level in recorded history, and as women continue to earn more degrees and make more money than single men, marriage will only become less common.
The immediate reaction from conservatives has been to lament, rightly, the decline of the American family. And while conservatives should try to right that ship, they must also “lose better” among unmarried women as a group, or be doomed to perpetually lose close-ish elections.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the gap predates Donald Trump. Anecdotally, when I talk to single women, Trump often comes up as the reason they dislike Republicans. But the data are more complicated. Trump received 32 percent of the unmarried women vote in 2016 and 36 percent in 2020—not a success by any stretch, but he picked up votes, and even outperformed both John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain did the worst of them all, and he had a female running mate. Even if ditching Trump were possible, the problem runs deeper.
In courting unmarried women, Republicans should avoid some responses that (speaking from a wealth of single-lady experience) might sound appealing, but will probably fall flat.
First of all, Republicans should resist the temptation to imitate Democrats‘ economic agenda. Commentators said in 2012 that single women likely favored Obama for economic reasons. Unmarried women, they said, don’t have a husband’s earnings to fall back on and tend to be less affluent. Because Democrats like social programs and Republicans rallied against Obamacare, Democrats earned the single women vote.
But handouts aren’t the answer. Forget, for a second, that handouts disincentivize marriage, don’t build wealth, and exacerbate inflation. Aside from being bad policy, handouts are not a message that will work for the GOP.
The single woman vote is not primarily an income issue. While women with children basically split their vote, childless women favored Democrats by 11 points. But childless women are not generally poor—they out-earn childless men and out-earn moms. If Republicans’ problem was primarily a welfare one, we’d expect to see childless men and moms voting Democrat more often than childless women.
Furthermore, Republicans can’t out-handout Democrats. Agreeing to free money doesn’t earn Republicans votes; it just moves the goalposts. For example, Republicans now publicly support Obamacare subsidies. Rather than garner applause from single women, Republicans are now expected to support “enhanced” subsidies (once deemed temporary for COVID) tucked into the Inflation Reduction Act.
Conservatives may also be tempted to parrot the sentiment that women, and other segments of the population, are oppressed, and discuss the “pay gap,” sexual harassment, reproductive “justice” and so on.
But this language appeals to leftists who will never vote Republican, not to persuadable women who likely see the world differently. Conservative-leaning individuals tend to value self-reliance, hard work, and achievement more than being communal and open-minded. We are less likely to be drawn into messaging that paints women as a community of victims, because we value seeing ourselves as individually capable of greatness.
I’ll never forget an early experience I had in law school. A group for female law students told incoming women to support fellow women’s answers in class. Several ladies nodded, but I bristled. If the answer is good, I’ll support it. If it’s wrong, I won’t. Women are smart enough not to need a cheer squad in class.
The people attracted to a community-of-victims message already have a party. Conservatives can offer something better.
What might work? There’s no silver bullet, but Republicans have opportunities in two areas. First, abortion. Republicans haven’t had practice talking to independents about abortion in 50 years, and that inexperience showed. Americans don’t like sudden change, and Republicans too often failed to appreciate that. In addition, they were too slow to answer false narratives—they need to debunk baseless claims that Republicans want to outlaw contraception and reiterate their across-the-board support for health care to protect women’s physical health.
Second is old-fashioned retail politics. Perhaps given the current lack of ladies, Republican membership can seem like an arrogant old-boys’ club unwelcoming to women, let alone single women. Even though I don’t mind being outnumbered, I have usually waited for a personal invitation before joining or becoming more involved in conservative organizations. Candidates and groups should not dismiss unmarried women as lost causes, but invest time personally reaching out to single women, treating them as smart and capable, and identifying opportunities for leadership.