Courting women voters

says she leans Democratic on social issues. CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press
says she leans Democratic on social issues. CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press (Marisa Hannum)

Both parties are tailoring their narratives to lure the millions of unregistered.

Posted: March 29, 2012

STERLING, Va. - As a married woman, Marisa Hannum had her family's conservatism in mind when she backed Republicans in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Now divorced, she is putting her own interests first as she weighs whether to vote for President Obama or his Republican challenger this fall.

She's an abortion opponent, worried about her finances, and concerned for friends who can't find jobs. She's dumbfounded that anyone is questioning birth-control access in 2012. And she has only a glimmer of an idea of how she'll vote in November.

"Now I am a little bit better informed. But I am really on the fence," says Hannum, 30, an assistant restaurant manager, as she stops by the post office in this Washington suburb - a region filled with single women that Democrats and Republicans alike are targeting.

In an election year heavily focused on social issues and the economy, Democrats are trying to energize single females who overwhelmingly vote for their candidates while Republicans work to peel them away.

Political math tells the story of the so-called marriage gap: Exit polls show that women are a majority of voters in presidential election years, and about four in 10 female voters don't have a spouse. They lean more Democratic than married women do. But the census says about 22 percent of them are unregistered, a rich pool of potential new voters for both parties.

Though single women are among the most Democratic groups in the electorate, recent political history gives Republicans hope: In 2010, GOP House candidates grabbed their highest share of women's votes in decades, at 49 percent. Single women also were hit harder than others by the recession.

So in both parties, the race is on to reach single women, register them, and inspire them to vote.

"There is a group of women who are up for grabs," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who describes a majority of these voters as older, blue-collar, and white. In her research for the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, Lake estimates that the share of unregistered single women could be as high as 40 percent, or 55 million people.

As much as 75 percent of single women vote for Democrats, so registering them to vote en masse is more beneficial for that party. And, said GOP pollster Ed Goeas, single working women tend to vote at some of the lowest rates of any demographic.

"They are a long shot," Goeas said. But previously married women such as Hannum, he said, tend to be more conservative than never-marrieds and thus perhaps more open to GOP entreaties.

The scramble for women's support accounts for the competing narratives being spun by the parties. Democrats trumpeted a "Republican war against women," after GOP objections to birth-control access. They have used the slogan against GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, and it was the theme of a Western fund-raising swing by 11 female Democratic Senate candidates.

Republicans, meanwhile, are betting that come Nov. 6, women generally will vote on Obama's stewardship of the economy.

However, unlike men, GOP strategists say, women have a more intimate relationship with consumer goods and are more likely to know, for example, how much the price of milk has changed, or the outlook for the family budget. It's why the party is heavily focused on the rising price of gas this year, a key pocketbook issue certain to intensify as the summer vacation season draws near.

For Hannum, the economy and social issues vie for primacy on her political priority list. She's the only woman on a three-manager team at an upscale Italian restaurant. She has a red Volkswagen Jetta and bills that she alone is responsible for. She worries that gas is hitting $4 a gallon in northern Virginia, and says she could not afford a pay freeze or cut. "I can barely afford life as it is now," she says.

So what would each party say to Hannum, and others like her?

Romney's campaign responded by highlighting the former Massachusetts governor's success in business as well as his plan to rein in government spending, cut bureaucracy, and restore economic growth.

Hannum's take:

"I'm reading about a man who's accomplished a lot," she said. But she noted that his statement did not mention women, health care, or birth control. "If you're trying to win me, put something in there that has to do with me."

GOP challenger Rick Santorum's appeal to Hannum was more specific. His campaign invoked her name and made note of her occupation. But Hannum said: "He won't get my vote," partly because he opposes gay marriage.

Obama's campaign did not respond to Hannum.

Still, after listening to both Republicans, Hannum said, "Because of how I feel about some of the social issues, at this point, I would definitely vote Democratic over the Republicans" - though she left open the possibility that she could be swayed.

The GOP has seven months to try.

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