“The Life of Julia,” the Obama campaign’s new interactive Web ad, follows a cartoon everywoman, Julia, through the milestones of a middle-class American life: education, work, motherhood, retirement. One milestone is pointedly missing: marriage.
But, then again, why should Julia get married? She doesn’t need to. Like a growing number of single women with children, Julia is married to the state.
As a character drawn and focus-grouped by political consultants, Julia is designed to remind voters of the government programs President Obama champions and likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney is ostensibly intent on taking away. Julia goes to school (with help from Headstart and federal student loans), she works (thank you, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Small Business Administration), she has a son (free health screenings brought to her by Obamacare) and she retires (Social Security and Medicare pay the bills while she volunteers in a community garden).
But Julia is a more artful and nuanced creation than a simple tour guide to the utopia that awaits under a second Obama term. She is designed to appeal to a narrow but deep demographic: single women, especially single women with kids.
In 2007, the United States passed a significant demographic milestone, when the census reported that the majority of American households were headed by unmarried people. It was the crest of a wave that had been building for some time. Since 1960, the percentage of the population that is over age 15 and unmarried increased from 32 percent to 45 percent. If this trend continues, singles (including unmarried people who are cohabiting) will make up the majority of Americans in less than 15 years.
And in this nation of swinging singles, women are dominant. Because women live longer than men, there are about 10 million more single women than single men, and their ranks are growing. While the number of voting-eligible married women grew by 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, the number of voting-eligible single women increased by 19 percent. This election year, unmarried voting-eligible women are estimated to number 55 million, more than 25 percent of the voting-eligible population.
It’s that word — “eligible” — that Democrats are focused on. Although polls show that married women favor Romney over Obama, unmarried women are the most reliably Democratic voting group outside African Americans. They constituted a whopping 71-to-29 percent majority for Obama in 2008, earning them a place in what Democrats call their “rising American electorate” — the people of color, the young and the unmarried women who helped deliver the presidency for Obama in 2008, and who Democrats desperately want back in 2012.
The problem is, the rising American electorate is a reliable Democratic vote only when it bothers to register and show up. And even though they show a current 44-point preference for Obama, unmarried women — especially those with children — register and vote at lower rates than married women.
The turnout of unmarried women is so unreliable that, until the 2000 presidential election, Democrats generally wrote off the single female vote as not worth the effort. But in that razor-thin contest, strategists noticed for the first time that 22 million members of their most reliable cohort of voters did not go to the polls. If single women had cast ballots in the same proportions as married women, Al Gore probably would have received the punched chads of an additional 6 million voters, more than enough to have won him the White House.
The Democratic Party’s answer to this missed opportunity has been to attempt to make singlehood cool and fresh and new in an attempt to court this demographic. When focus groups told them that unmarried women regard the word “single” as a depressing term, strategists renamed them simply “unmarried” or, even better, “women on their own.” When strategists such as Ann Lewis, a longtime adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton, tried to call them “Single Anxious Females,” liberal pundits quickly countered with more palatable evocations of “Sex and the City voters.”
Julia is just the latest makeover. She is the Democrats’ answer to Romney’s family Christmas card. A nation of women on their own, after all, doesn’t relate very well to fecund portraits of smiling white moms and dads with kids and golden retrievers underfoot. With her spare, faceless affect, Julia is meant to evoke a more modern, independent sensibility — with the exception of her life of endless government dependency, that is.
Julia is Mary Tyler Moore on the government’s dime. You’re gonna make it after all, Julia! Just remember who’s responsible on Election Day.
The problem is, like so much of our political rhetoric, Julia is not a composite; she’s a myth. Some of the nation’s single moms may be successful Web designers, but many are poor — fully half have incomes of less than $30,000 a year, compared with just 15 percent of married women. It’s not Pell grants and SBA loans these women rely on but Medicaid and food stamps. And it’s not comfortable retirements in community gardens they contemplate but bleak old age.
Whereas government benefits were once the state’s compassionate response to women who had lost their husbands, in Julia’s world they are the unquestionable entitlement of women who never married. The decline of marriage and Democratic political opportunism have combined to transform what used to be a situation to be avoided — single motherhood — into a new and proud American demographic, citizens of Obama’s Hubby State.
Gone is any acknowledgment that remaining single is a less than ideal situation for women — or for men, for that matter — or that raising children outside of marriage is anything less than these women’s inalienable personal choice.
Strategists talk breathlessly of unmarried women becoming for the Democratic Party what evangelical Christians are for the Republicans: a large, awakened, reliable force for liberal social change. And for good reason. Women, as a group, look more approvingly on government social welfare programs and domestic spending than men do. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that women favor a more activist government than men by double digits — a finding consistent since at least 2000. Higher percentages of women say government doesn’t do enough for the elderly, children and the poor. Women endorse more government regulation of the workplace and the environment. Six in 10 women say that helping the poor and needy should be the highest priority of government, compared with 46 percent of men. And when you consider only single women with kids, and this gap widens even further.
The Democratic project to coax single women to the polls is given urgency by an interesting political fact: Although single women vote overwhelmingly Democratic, their condition is not permanent. According to the work of University of Chicago demographer Tom Smith, once divorced people remarry, they start to vote like married people again. In 2004, George W. Bush had a 12-point advantage over John Kerry among married people. Kerry won divorced voters by three points and separated and never-married voters by 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively. But among remarried voters, Bush was back on top by 15 percent. It seems something about the institution of marriage makes people vote Republican.
Julia — like the trumped-up GOP “war on women” — is part of a Democratic get-out-the-vote effort aimed at single women. Boldly and openly, unmarried American women are being encouraged to substitute a relationship with a spouse for one with the state. The consequences of this choice are great, and they’re not insignificant for the rest of us, either. After all, a husband who’s a plumber can’t raise our taxes. A husband who’s the government can, especially if you want him to help out more raising the kids.
Jessica Gavora, a Washington writer, was speechwriter for Attorney General John Ashcroft and is the author of “Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex, and Title IX.” This piece is partly adapted from an essay the author wrote in the anthology “New Threats to Freedom.”
Read more from Outlook: