After years of marriage 33-year old Ashton and 49-year old Demi have finally broken up – a surprise to no one (except maybe Terry MacMillan). Now that GI Jane is rebounding fresh out of rehab she’ll soon be on the prowl making many a 20 and 30-something year old man happy. Moore’s newly single status has paparazzi tongues wagging and is resurrecting the pop culture phenomenon of Cougars: Educated, financially sound single White women in their 30’s and 40’s dating and occasionally marrying men who are significantly (10 years or more) younger than they are.
However, this is an election year, so no pop culture concept is completely devoid of campaign significance. The Cougar demographic has actually become just as alluring to the presidential candidates as they are to 20-something boy-toy wannabees. In a year where candidates are scrambling for the Latino vote, the Young vote and the Senior vote, it begs the question: Who will win the Cougar vote?
Getting Women to the Polls
This is not as silly a concept as it may seem, the notion of Cougars, and their political and demographic significance, especially in White America, can’t be underestimated. Cougars are the modern day Soccer Moms. You remember Soccer Moms don’t you? A cultural and political phenomenon of the mid-1990’s when the economy was booming, the millenials were being born and it seemed like the United States would have a budget surplus to last a lifetime. Soccer Moms were 20 something suburban, college educated professional White women, juggling their careers, families and often seen in mini-vans caravaning grade schoolers back and forth to ballet, piano lessons and – of course – soccer practice. Bill Clinton focused his re-election campaign around these women, correctly predicting that if he could win the hearts and minds of 20-something soccer moms, (and soccer mom wannabees) that he could pull out upsets in swing state suburbs. He was right, but now those women are gone, replaced by Cougars, who are just as important in 2012 to Obama and Romney as they were to Clinton and Dole in 1996.
Cougars in their Natural Habitat
Cougars are grown up Soccer Moms who’ve either gotten divorced (or never married), have money and either no kids, or older kids who aren’t much of a hindrance to their social lives. Pop culture gave us our first glimpse of this group with one incredible show and one blockbuster film in the Summer of 1998. Sex in the City premiered on HBO in June of 1998 followed by the August release of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Both of these slices of media depicted older women, all single or divorced still dating, sexually active and financially secure in their late 30’s and 40’s (More on Stella in part 2).
Within a year you had the M.I.L.F. (Mom I’d Like to F**k) popularized by the buxom sexually suggestive mom in the first American Pie movie in 1999. The term Cougar finally came about in 2001 thanks to the book “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men” by British writer Valerie Gibson. The book became a best seller and spawned a host of dating sites that reportedly set up hot young guys with hot older women. Less than a decade later Newsweek coined 2009 “The Year of the Cougar”, (similar to how the Boston Globe ran an article entitled Year of the Soccer Mom in 1996) and the tacky, but oddly popular network drama Cougar Town premiered to high ratings staring Courtney Cox who just a few years before was supposed to be a young hipster on Friends.
Sloppy dramedies aside, Cougars are a legitimate and growing demographic in America. Higher divorce rates, better health decisions and later marriages, especially amongst the White American population have thrown millions of older women back into the deep end of the dating pool in their late 30’s and 40’s.
Now this newly created slice of women are playing an increasingly pivotal role in politics.
According to census data, over 45% of White women in America are not living with a spouse, and the 2008 Democratic primary showed that these women are active and engaged in politics. Unmarried women now equal married women in the electorate, and comprise a little over 26% of all eligible voters. In a 2007 article from ABC news entiled “Sex and the Single Woman’s Vote” (an obvious play on the predecessors of Cougars) analysts argued that ignoring older single women would imperil anyone’s election chances in America over the next decade as this group has grown faster than any other.
There was a time when women voters could be conveniently bundled as Soccer Moms and Security moms who are primarily concerned with family (i.e., their husband and kids) issues. But in a Post-9-11, extended recession, high divorce, high education debt, single mother-still-dating-and-looking-world those bundles don’t carry as much weight as they used to.
So we’re left with the question: Which of the candidates, President Barack Obama, or all but assured nominee Mitt Romney, are doing a better job of heading out into the electorate with their best lines and taking a Cougar back home to the voting booth? Obama has experience courting single women voters. First: he had to in order to counteract Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008, but policy wise he has often drawn upon his experiences of being raised by a single mom. This helped him a great deal in suburban Atlanta, Phoenix, and Charlotte where large populations of these women reside. As of right now, Romney’s not doing too well with his lines. His perennial focus on his large an (at least in modern times) unconventional nuclear family, not to mention a series of stories about his ambivalence or absolute hostility towards single women will be a huge problem for him. Unless Romney provides some concrete policies targeted at helping single women, he won’t have much success Cougar hunting this fall.
Tomorrow: Hunting for the Cougar Vote: Part II Why Black Women aren’t Cougars
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson