In rush for votes, a new demographic emerges
As both campaigns scour for new voters — especially in increasingly crucial Florida — a growing group of experts and a recent Gallup survey suggest that the obsession over single-female voters should shift to the widows and divorcees of the over-65 bracket.
President Obama has been, in political terms, a single-lady killer: the latest Fox News poll of likely voters has Obama leading Romney by 38 points. According to exit polls, he won the group by 44 points in 2008.
But an exit poll study by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that Obama’s 2008 support among single seniors women shrunk to 19 points — the narrowest margin of any other subgroup as it relates to marriage status. By the time women reach their Medicare-recipient age, experts said, their living arrangement is almost incidental to their voting profile.
Indeed, the Obama campaign confirmed recently that it is not making any specific targeting efforts related to single seniors – even though it has made great strides to connect to the younger constituency.
Nevertheless, for the last couple weeks, the Sarasota Democratic Party has been specifically interacting with senior singles, as part of a targeting effort to reach over-65 women who live in households without a Republican male influence. According to chairwoman Rita Ferrandino, the county party has identified 14,700 women in area who voted in either 2008 or 2010 or registered for this cycle, who fit the bill. Of this group, many of them are living alone.
“We are a retirement community,” said Ferrandino, “We have a lot of these kinds of women.
It also so happens, that in the snowbird city along Florida’s Gulf Coast, single senior women tend to be the most dedicated political activists. Four years ago, Obama came within 211 votes of winning the county, the best a Democrat has fared since Franklin Delano Roosevelt last won re-election. Mitt Romney is scheduled to host a campaign rally here today at the Ringling Museum of Art.
“I think single women have more time on their hands to be engaged,” said Ferrandino. “They have their own schedule and a lot of the men are just curmudgeonly around [that] age, but women in their 60s are full of life.”
Carol Wolf, 66, certainly likes to think of herself that way. A Bostonian who relocated to Sarasota two years ago, Wolf become single in her late 20s when she and her then-husband divorced. Tending to two children at the time, she enlisted for federal relief.
“I needed the government to help me with Aid to Dependent Children in order for me to get a job,” said Wolf. “If I hadn’t had that government help, I wouldn’t have paid an outrageous amount of taxes over my lifetime.”
Wolf went on to become a vice president of marketing at a major publishing company, and now holds a similar job with an educational technology company in Sarasota.
“I feel now that I was able to retire before Bush trashed the economy,” she said. “I had saved enough money, despite having been a single parent all these years, and putting my kids through college and good schools, I was able to gather up a little bit.” Still, she added: “I am counting on Medicare and Social Security and I have a very fixed budget.”
In interviews with pollsters, academics and experts, along with some recent polling data, the case is made (particularly for Democrats) to take another look at how marriage status applies to older women.
“Honestly, it is a pretty new concept to be thinking about,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster regarded as the doyenne of single female voter politics. “I don’t think many people have thought about seniors in terms of married versus unmarried status.”
An internal breakdown of a recent Gallup survey, provided to The Daily, reveals a compelling trend to the voting behavior among senior women. In surveys conducted from June to August, Gallup found that Obama held a six-point advantage among unmarried senior female voters, while trailing Romney among married ones by 16 points. However, in polls taken from Aug. 12 to Sep. 13 — after Rep. Paul Ryan joined the GOP ticket — Obama pushed his advantage among unmarried, over-65 women to 10 points (51 to 41 percent). The gap among married women in that age group remained virtually unchanged.
To some experts, this suggests the possibility of a direct and fluid correlation between marital status and voting behavior among older women.
“There is a difference in terms of how someone approaches voting choice if you are on your own,” said Page Gardner, president of Voter Participation Center, a non-profit group dedicated to targeting unmarried female voters.
“You are one health care crisis away from financial ruin…Not that those issues are unimportant to married women, but there is a qualitative difference in the way [single, older] women think about their lives.”
Ferrandino said that in her experience, senior single women are being just as animated by social issues as well. In fact, she theorizes, the movement of single seniors in the Gallup poll may have just as much to do with Rep. Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”, as it does with Ryan’s stance on Medicare reform.
“I remember when women had to sneak to other states to get an abortion,” said Wolf. “I know people died for getting an abortion…Speaking to much younger women who have grown up once it appeared these were settled issues, they don’t really perceive that could happen.”
While the lion’s share of single women voters are between 18-65, the senior component is not insignificant. According to 2010 Census figures, of the 21.8 million American women who were over 65, about 42 percent (9.2 million) were married and living with their spouse. The majority, however, were spouseless, with most of this group being comprised of widows (40 percent of the total; or 9.23 million women).
Lake argues that it particularly behooves Democrats to begin micro-targeting seniors. Democrats lost seniors by 21 points in the 2010 midterms. “We can’t win and do that,” said Lake.
“What is possible here,” said Lake, “if you have to get a group of seniors, our best shot other than seniors of color is get an unmarried senior women, preferably the longer unmarried.”
The single senior vote only stands to grow in the coming elections.
The 65-plus set — both men and women — made up 13 percent of the US population in 2010, but that group is expected to comprise nearly 20 percent of the country by 2050.
“This is going to be a very fast growing group because the new seniors, the people who will become seniors over next 40 years, have much lower marriage rates,” Lake said.
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