Paris Hilton, Swing Voter?

Single women are this election’s hot demographic, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi informed readers yesterday. Specifically, the “massive and largely ignored group” of “unmarried, widowed and divorced women between ages 18 and 45” who tend not to vote. “All they need now,” Farhi wrote, “is a catchy name, some glib shorthand that will catch the media’s attention” — deftly distancing both the Post and himself as separate and different from something called “the media.”

By Campaign Desk’s measure, the attention of “the media” has already been caught. (No need for Farhi’s “unsolicited” acronym: “WINDOWS — for widowed, independent, on-their-own women.”) For starters, The Christian Science Monitor has twice written about these women — once in a January editorial and again on March 12, tied to President Bush’s speech at a women’s entrepreneurship forum in Cleveland. Salon, too, has weighed in twice in the past three weeks — one, a March 31 Arianna Huffington piece titled “Girls Gone Riled,” itself appeared twice (it was later repackaged for the April 7 New York Daily News).

Indeed, there has been no shortage of stories this year on the courting of and/or potential impact of single women voters, as Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt noted in their own contributions to the genre last week in Salon and The Nation, respectively. Wrote Pollitt: “You’ve probably read about attempts to woo these ‘Sex and the City voters’ in one of the dozens of nearly identical articles that have come out …”

While perhaps not “nearly identical,” these stories have followed a loose pattern, which Farhi’s short take yesterday more or less fits. Here’s how they flow: First, appear to disdainfully distance yourself from the concept of already-trendy coveted voting groups, such as NASCAR dads and soccer moms. (Pollit, for example, does it in her headline: “Pull Over, NASCAR Dads.”) Next, introduce 2004’s voting bloc of choice by mentioning a December 2003 study conducted by Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Stanley Greenberg and/or the organization that commissioned the study, Women’s Voices. Women Vote. (Just about all the above-mentioned stories do this, most often citing the powerful finding that IF unmarried women had voted at the same rate as married women in 2000, there would have been 6 million more votes cast).

Then, if you can spare the space, pop your own trial balloon by pointing out that in truth these unmarried women are hardly a monolithic subset of the population, marching in robot-like lockstep. (The Christian Science Monitor does, as does Pollitt, Traister, and Huffington. Farhi, who only gets a few short paragraphs, does not.)

If you still have inches to fill, you might call on a few experts — if you’re writing for Salon, you ask sex columnists like Candace Bushnell and Dr. Ruth Westheimer — and ask them why so many of these “Sex and the City voters” don’t vote. Or you might find a few single women on the street (or in your circle of friends, in Traister’s case) and ask them directly.

Campaign Desk did find a columnist who broke with this pattern entirely. Lest NASCAR dads and soccer moms begin to feel neglected this year, Bonnie Erbe, in a February 16 column for Scripps Howard News Service, refused to turn her back on the “crucial” swing voters of yore. In fact, Erbe proclaims that 2004 is actually the year that will finally pit soccer moms (who “tend to be more war-averse than their men”) against NASCAR dads in “the ultimate gender-bender, voter match-up.”

Oddly enough, she makes only a passing mention of those non-voting single women between age 18 and 45 that everyone else is yammering about. Why do we have the feeling Erbe is on to something? Or, better yet, not on to something?

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.