The Myth of the Beyoncé Voter

All the single ladies… aren’t the same.

In the controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the crafts superstore can't be compelled to offer birth control to its employees under the Affordable Care Act. Ironically, the decision seems to have given birth to a new group of Americans: the Beyoncé voters.

Fox News's Jesse Watters coined the term to refer to single women, predicting this demographic will be a coveted bloc to court come election time.

“I call them the Beyoncé voters, the single ladies,” Watters declared. ("Single Ladies," get it?) “Obama won the single ladies by 76 percent last time, and they made up about a quarter of the electorate. You know, they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.”

The term went viral, spawning a Tumblr account matching lyrics of Beyoncé hits to photos of influential women, and eliciting snarky responses from “typical” single women (“We are a monolithic block [sic], each and every one dedicated to premarital sex, hedonism, socialism, white wine, and tweeting about misogyny”).

Watters may be right that unmarried women constitute an important set of votes. But a closer look shows why no party can afford to lump such a diverse group of people together and treat them as a single bloc to be won or lost.

Let's break down Watters' statement:

  • “Obama won the single ladies by 76 percent last time ...” Exit polling in 2012 showed that 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama. In 2008, this number was actually higher by a few percentage points. Perhaps most surprising? Single women tend to vote more Republican than the commonly held misconception of their Democratic leanings. 
  • “... and they made up about a quarter of the electorate.” This is true: 25.2 percent of the voting-age population, or 53 million people, are unmarried women. The problem for Democrats is that despite single women leaning toward the party, they don’t necessarily go out to vote, particularly for midterm elections. Only single men are less likely to show up at the polls.
  • “They depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands.” Setting aside the sexist assumption that married women "depend" on their husbands, it's true by definition that unmarried women don't have a partner to fall back on in hard times. But do they depend on the government? Women are twice as likely as men to have received food stamps. The major driver of this disparity is that single women care for children at higher rates than men, while single mothers earn four times less than their married counterparts—$23,000 per year compared to the $80,000 married moms pull in. Single women are therefore more likely to use welfare programs. But there's no strong correlation between political leaning and receiving benefits. A 2012 Pew Research survey found that 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans had received funds from federal entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment benefits, and food stamps.
  • “They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” Women do in fact tend to be concerned about things like contraception, health care, and equal pay. But it's not as one-dimensional as he implies. Pew finds that the Affordable Care Act is far more likely to influence men's votes in the midterm elections than women's. And the politics of fair pay are complicated. While women still lag behind men in earnings, young, city-dwelling single women actually earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, 61 percent of men agree this is a problem that needs to be solved.

On a basic level, Watters is correct. But beyond these numbers (and from my perspective as a single woman), it seems foolish to draw too many assumptions about the voting bloc. Here's why: The only thing that unites all single women is their marital status. That’s it.

Simply looking at their marital status doesn’t begin to speak to the complexity of their lives. Some have been married before. Some are in relationships. Some are engaged. Some have children. But at this moment, just about the only thing linking the struggling single mother working a minimum-wage job and the middle-aged businesswoman with a swanky Upper East Side apartment is the lack of jewelry on their left ring finger.

Take education. One-third of unmarried people 25 and older in 2011 were high-school graduates. A single female high-school graduate is more likely to be a single mother than her college-educated counterpart.

Then there’s race. Both Hispanics and African Americans are Democratic-leaning groups with large and growing populations of single women. Hispanic and black single women are also more likely to be mothers than other ethnicities. And voting rates over the years differ among women of different ethnicities: The number of white women voting in recent elections has remained steady, while turnout among Asians, blacks, and Hispanic women has steadily grown.

And let’s not forget age. In the cultural imagination, all single women may be Girls, but single women are a growing segment at the older end of the spectrum. As the number of Americans older than 65 grows, so does the number of older unmarried people; in 2009, 17 percent of single people were senior citizens. Though 64-year-olds are surprisingly fond of Beyoncé's music, they're less concerned about birth control or the establishing their first career. But women are more likely to outlive their male counterparts, making living on a single income more of a concern.

Believers in the Beyoncé voter point to Virginia’s 2013 governor’s race as evidence. Democrat Terry McAuliffe branded his opponent Ken Cuccinelli a part of a “Republican war on women” and emphasized GOP efforts to restrict abortion in the state en route to winning single women by 42 points.

Does that prove Watters' theory? I think there's a strong argument that bigger economic factors underly these dynamics and explain them.

There are 89 unmarried men for every 100 women. By the numbers, it isn’t easy for a heterosexual woman to find a mate. Even if she were able to, marriage has been delayed to historic levels. Marriage is expensive, and single women are avoiding it at historic levels, no small thanks to the increasing liberalization of social norms and unmarried cohabitation.

So what is the secret to "getting" single women? Younger single women were caught in the throes of a recession, amassed a mountain of student debt, and are now struggling to pay their rent or attempting to pay off mortgages for homes, just like their male counterparts.

While many women do care a great deal about contraception and equal pay, the biggest concern most women have right now is how the leaders we elect will create a job-friendly environment. Since single women earn less than single men and married women, their jobs are extremely important, especially if they're trying to get health insurance for themselves and/or their children. They were hit especially hard by unemployment during the Great Recession. And job security isn't just on the minds of 20-somethings: Senior single women are facing increasing economic insecurity too. In other words, birth control isn't what will get single women (or for that matter, anyone) to the polls come November. It's jobs and economic stability.