Unmarried Voters Have the Numbers, If Not the Attention

Campaign messaging still largely targets older voters with families

Michael Cuellar, a worker at a tech start-up in Austin, Texas, said he feels left out of the current political cycle as candidates address the problems of older Americans and families. PHOTO: JULIA ROBINSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Updated Sept. 30, 2016 7:38 p.m. ET6 COMMENTS

Michael Cuellar isn’t moved when presidential candidates talk about aiding middle-class families and offering child-care tax breaks. Such perks wouldn’t help the 27-year-old Austin, Texas, startup worker, who plans to remain a childless bachelor for years.

He is part of what sociologists see as a growing disconnect between the messaging of political campaigns and a dramatically changing U.S. electorate. Nearly half of adults in America are unmarried, while the rate is even higher among those under age 35, now the largest of all potential voting blocs. But while candidates up and down the ballot seek support from younger voters, they still aim their stump speeches largely at nuclear families.

This year, 48% of eligible voters are unmarried, up from 30% in 1974, census figures show. The 2016 presidential race will be the first one where there are more unmarried women eligible to vote than married women, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

Young adults are waiting longer to wed, and the share that live with their parents is at its highest level in modern history. The median age for a first marriage among men is now 29, up from 23 in 1970. In all, among the largest single U.S. voting bloc, 77% of millennial males and 70% of females have never married.

Meanwhile, Baby Boomers who divorced or are widowed feel less societal pressure to remarry, and more couples live together outside of marriage.

“You see candidates talk to voters as if everyone’s married with children and living in intact families,” said Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University and the author of “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.” He added, “Clearly the ‘Father Knows Best’ rhetoric doesn’t work for 21st Century American voters.”


Single adults are hardly a monolithic group. About 13% are raising a child younger than 18, according to census figures from Pew Research Center. Others prefer to be single or have no plans to have children. Still others are older and widowed, and for them, benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security hold outsize importance.

Monday’s presidential debate
featured 10 references to “family” or “families,” including Democrat Hillary Clinton’s pledge to better support those struggling to balance family and work and her reference to $13 trillion in “family wealth” wiped out during the financial crisis. Among the first things Republican Donald Trump’s campaign website biography mentions is his belief in the importance of a strong family.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump said his proposals would lower income taxes for unmarried Americans and allow singles with children to deduct child care expenses. A Clinton campaign representative didn’t return a request for comment.

In a speech Friday in Fort Pierce, Fla., the Democratic nominee pitched millennials on volunteerism and national service, telling them that service “really is woven into your life”

Part of the reason politicians give single adults less attention is because they vote at lower rates. Political strategists say they also move more frequently, making registration a bigger hurdle to casting a ballot. They vote for Democrats more than their married counterparts, in part because they are often economically insecure and motivated by issues such as raising the minimum wage and equal pay, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

Democratic strategists see increasing turnout among unmarried women as particularly important to nominee Hillary Clinton because these heavily Democratic voters make up 26% of the electorate. Polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research after Monday’s debate showed white unmarried women were among the most drawn to Mrs. Clinton, thanks to her remarks on expanding paid family leave and tightening gun laws.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September found that among unmarried women, 57% backed Mrs. Clinton and 29% backed Republican Donald Trump. Unmarried men were more evenly split but still leaned toward Mrs. Clinton, with 48% versus 41% planning to vote for Mr. Trump.

Among married women, 47% support Mrs. Clinton and 42% are going for Mr. Trump, the poll found. For married men, 48% back Mr. Trump and 42% plan to vote for Mrs. Clinton.

Some lawmakers are tweaking their stump speeches to appeal to unhitched voters. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.) says he sees student debt holding back his constituents from starting their own families and is talking with voters about solutions. When he first ran for his seat four years ago as a single 31-year-old, his Democratic opponentPete Stark swiped at him in a debate for not having a family.

“I felt a little embarrassed about it, not knowing if people would think I was less capable of doing the job,” said Mr. Swalwell. He doesn’t think the barb ultimately resonated given the many kinds of family arrangements in his district southeast of San Francisco. “If it worked a long time ago, I certainly don’t think it works now.”

Alice Davis, a 68-year-old widowed retiree in Nicholson, Ga., says she plans to vote for Mr. Trump, although she said she wishes he would speak more about the need to bolster Social Security.

“The thing about Donald is, he hasn’t ever been in office, and I think he’ll clean it up,” said the former pharmacy technician. She lives mainly on that $1,324 per month check and says she mostly stays home because she can’t afford entertainment.

Mr. Cuellar in Texas plans to cast his ballot for Mrs. Clinton because she supports raising the minimum wage, and he thinks she is a more qualified global leader. But he is concerned that her student-debt proposals don’t adequately address the financial hole that many young adults already are in.

“Marriage will for sure be in my future,” he said, along with children. But perhaps not even before the 2020 presidential election.