There are 22 people running for president right now but only one has to answer questions about his “boo”: Sen. Cory Booker.
Booker has tried to stick to his preferred talking points: his vision for criminal justice reform, his desire to unify the country while running on a platform of love and optimism, the fact that he lives in Newark. But he has not been able to dodge persistent inquiries about his love life, and so he has made the media rounds gamely laughing his way through questions about his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson. He’s assured people that Dawson would make “an incredible first lady,” and that, with her compassion and intellect, she basically already is one: “She is a First Lady. She is love-knowledgeable: She loves people. She’s justice-knowledgeable. She been fighting for justice her whole life.”
Uncomfortable though he may be by all the attention paid to his romantic prospects, Booker is picking up on an unspoken prerequisite for the nation’s highest office: America hasn’t put an unmarried person in the White House since World War I. This fact has surely not escaped Booker or, say, Georgia phenom Stacy Abrams, who is also unmarried and, in the comically vague parlance of presidential races, has said “2020 is definitely on the table” and that she’s “not saying I would be the best candidate, but I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand the way others do.”
Though our presidents continue to be married men, an ever-growing slice of the electorate is single (and — not for nothing! — female). Only half of U.S. adults are married today, down from a peak of 72% back in 1960. But even as more and more Americans of voting age are never-marrieds, it’s all but assumed that any major-party nominee will have a spouse.
By some metrics, relationship status standards have relaxed: The once-divorced, twice-married Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, paving the way for the twice-divorced, thrice-married Donald Trump. But our nation’s vision for a president is not yet so expansive as to allow for a person who is single. That reflects the world beyond the voting booth, where Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people — that singles are, at best, rough-draft versions of someday-marrieds or at worst, selfish and juvenile egoists who can’t be bothered to grow up and settle down — persist, to everyone’s detriment.
Is it just that the right single candidate has yet to emerge? Does the presidency, as designed, require that someone fill the (unpaid and ceremonial yet still powerful and influential) role of first spouse? Or do Americans have such a big problem with single people in general that the idea of putting an unmarried person in the Oval Office is unfathomable? Having seen married presidents on both sides of the aisle be, to be generous about it, not exactly paragons of spousal virtue, why do voters still seem to believe that simply being married proves something critical about a presidential hopeful’s character? Why do Americans care if the president is married?
How much of a given is it that a modern presidential candidate is “supposed” to be married?
Asked by ThinkProgress for data on Americans’ views of unmarried candidates, both Pew and Gallup responded that, in all their polling about which candidate traits are assets or liabilities, they’ve never actually asked about the electability of a single person. (Characteristics for which Gallup does have data include but are not limited to: Whether a candidate is a lawyer, has strained relationships with his or her children, and is personally wealthy.)
In 243 years, America has only elected two men who, at the time of their inaugurations, had never been married: James Buchanan, who was a bachelor for life, and Grover Cleveland, who got married while he was in office. Woodrow Wilson was married when he was first inaugurated, but his first wife died during his first term; he remarried the following year, before his second inauguration. Add in the handful of widowed men have served as commander-in-chief — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Chester Arthur — and, by the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast creator Lillian Cunningham’s estimate, “about 20% of our presidents spent at least a good deal of their time in office unmarried.”
It’s a higher number than one might expect, due in part to recency bias: America hasn’t elected a single president in almost 100 years.
During his first campaign, Grover Cleveland was accused of having a baby out of wedlock, making him the subject of one of the first big scandals in presidential election history. By Cunningham’s estimate, this marked the “earliest moment where, in an election cycle, there was a lot of chatter and gossip and potential effect on the election results because of someone’s relationship status and the norms about relationships.”
Since then, aspiring candidates, and the calculating managers behind them, have gotten ahead of such scandal by presenting a married front. Take John F. Kennedy, who didn’t marry until he was 36 years old — quite the anomaly in post-war America, a fact that did not escape his shrewd father’s notice.
“Even as early as 1953, his dad was saying, ‘You have got to be married,’” Barbara Perry, Presidential Studies Director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told ThinkProgress. “They said at the time, ‘People will think you’re queer,’” a then-surely-disqualifying rumor that may have been fueled by Kennedy’s “really close” relationship with “a boyhood friend from prep school who was gay and spent a lot of time with him.”
“Imagine, this is the culture of the 1950s,” Perry went on. “Here he is, a war veteran, he’s into his mid-thirties and he’s still not married. [When] he’s a congressman about to be a senator, they even publish a story just before he announces his engagement to Jackie.” The piece, “The Senate’s Gay Young Bachelor,” ran in the Saturday Evening Post. (A women’s magazine also referred Rep. Kennedy as “America’s Most Eligible Bachelor.”)
“Then his marriage became this big public event, almost like we would see a big royal wedding,” Perry said. “The media were there, and that’s what his dad wanted — thinking, within a decade, he’d be running for president.”
Joe Kennedy understood that Americans wanted to see a president’s “masculinity and virility,” Perry said, traits conveyed most clearly through marriage to a woman. “It shows that you’re ‘normal,’ that you’re attracted to women. And if you can produce children, all the better.”
All these years later, those old expectations hold, even though the pool of potential unmarried presidents has only grown since the middle of the 20th century and, in 2019, is the largest it has ever been.
Though it may not always feel this way when you’re scrolling through Instagram, more American adults are single than ever before. (That includes the never-marrieds, the divorced, and the widowed.) As of 2012, one in five adults ages 25 and over had never been married — approximately 42 million people. In 1960, when marriage rates were at their peak, that number was about one in 10. The median age of first marriage continues to rise: In 2016, it was 27.4 years for women and 29.5 years for men, seven years higher than in 1960. And as Pew reports, “the share of Americans who have never married has been rising steadily in recent decades.” Based on census data, Pew projects that when today’s young adults hit their mid-40s to mid-50s, one-quarter of them are likely to have never been married — a record high.
At the same time, research from Pew also reveals a public that “is deeply divided over the role marriage plays in society.” Is society “better off” if people prioritize marriage and children? 46% of adults say yes. Is society “just as well off” if people prioritize other things? 50% of adults say yes. Opinions on the matter diverge along generational lines: The under-30 crowd is significantly more likely than their elders to say society is just fine when marriage and kids aren’t people’s number-one priority.
It’s intriguing that, even though single people are becoming a bigger-than-ever voting bloc, our presidential candidates aren’t reflecting that reality. Don’t Americans say we want a president to be like us — representative, in the fullest sense of the word?
Well… not exactly. “We never really elect people because they’re like the guy next door,” Cunningham said. “We’re always trying to elect leaders who we think are the best versions of ourselves, or in some way represent what we wish we could be.”
Those wishes are “obviously a reflection on our current values,” she said. “But it’s not necessarily exactly the same as who we are. To the extent that at least a portion of American society today craves some sense of normative values, and of marriage as a foundation of your value system, then I think [for] someone running for office, being married is sort of part of what’s necessary to crafting that image.”
“In our democracy, everything is reactive. The more volatile and unstable and new and different the world around us feels, the more we look for a leader who embraces normalcy and the familiar,” Cunningham said. “And vice versa: The more stale things are, the more we’re willing to look for a leader who feels different.”
In this climate, “Would Cory Booker fare better being married than single?” Cunningham asked. “That seems to be a political instinct everyone has.”
Our culture has a bizarre relationship with singledom, romanticizing and mocking it in almost equal measure. The entertainment industry fetishizes being single as the stuff of Dionysian fantasy, The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have In Your Life!!! — but only for a finite amount of time, after which point it is actually the most pathetic of all human conditions, evidence that one is an unworthy failure. While married people are never called upon to justify their continued devotion, single people are asked by loved ones, with obnoxious regularity, “Why are you still single?” (Hot tip: Spice up your next social gathering by asking all the couples, “Why are you still together?”)
Does our society full of single people just hate single people? Absolutely, says Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
DePaulo has been researching singles and singlism (discrimination against single people) since the early 1990s. “I’ve done a whole series of studies systematically measuring people’s perceptions of single people and married people,” DePaulo told ThinkProgress. “And it’s not pretty.” In her research, she has consistently found that single people are seen as “miserable, lonely, and more generally, that there’s something wrong somewhere. They must have issues, if they’re single.”
Through this lens, Booker, a smiley senator who happily owns being “corny,” may come across to some as trying to hide a sadness within. But even voters who take Booker’s apparent joy at face value still likely bring to their consideration of the candidate the same insidious views that they bring to single people more broadly.
“With regard to presidential issues, the most relevant stereotypes are that single people are self-centered or selfish, or that they’re immature,” DePaulo said. “How could someone who is seen as so self-centered have what it takes to care about a vast nation? If they did not do the grown-up thing of getting married, how could they be mature enough to lead the nation?”
Summing up the results of two decades of research in one sentence, DePaulo said, “What’s so important about these stereotypes is they are exactly wrong.”
By many available metrics, single people are, in fact, more generous and civic-minded than their married counterparts. Bureau of Labor statistics on volunteering reveal that single people volunteer as much or more than married people in nearly every category: at hospitals, in educational or youth services, in community service, and — especially relevant for would-be presidents — with civic, political, professional, or international organizations. (The only category where married people outdid singles was in contributions to religious groups.)
Single people are also more deeply engaged in their communities and social networks than their married counterparts are. “Singles are more likely to stay in touch with their friends, neighbors, siblings, and colleagues, whereas when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular,” said DePaulo. “It’s the single people who are taking a broad view of who matters and holding communities together.”
As the percentage of single adults rises, one would think these myths would dissipate. So why don’t they? DePaulo cited what scholars call “cultural lag,” the phenomenon by which “things are changing in societies, sometimes in remarkable ways, but our attitudes haven’t caught up. So we’re still thinking about things like it’s the 1950s: everyone gets married and stays married,” even though that hasn’t been the case in ages.
Exacerbating the problem is that these inaccurate views about single people aren’t the exclusive purview of the coupled. Single people are as vulnerable as anyone else to the alluring fantasy that getting married makes you “happier, healthier — which, by the way, isn’t true — and that you’ll be a better person,” DePaulo said. “That there’s something morally superior about you if you’re married… They get to have a life that’s already ready-made for them, and it will unfold in ways that sound very reassuring. I’ve been debunking those myths for 20 years, but they’re still very powerful.”
For voters, then, “marriage still serves as kind of a shortcut verifier,” DePaulo said. “It’s a way of saying… ‘They’re okay. We don’t need to worry about them.’”
Could Americans ever see a candidate’s singledom as an asset and not a liability? Perhaps it would take an unmarried candidate to change the way politicians talk about single people — or to get politicians to talk about single people at all. Individuals running for office rarely even acknowledge the vast number of unmarried citizens over whom they would preside.
“Even the most progressive, smart people, with wonderful, inclusive ideas, talk in ways that tell single people they just don’t count or matter,” DePaulo said.
Consider how often candidates talk about “how they’re going to fight for ‘working families’,” DePaulo said. “Well, two-year-olds don’t work. Employers don’t hire families. They hire individuals. And when candidates say, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to say working families get a fair shake,’ where does that leave me, as a single person with no children?”
Or think of how any progressive contender for the presidency is sure to talk about inequality, whether that’s by endorsing a $15 federal minimum wage, addressing rampant income inequality, or arguing that the wealthiest citizens should pay higher taxes. Yet none is called upon to address the more than 1,000 laws on the books that benefit couples, many of which give married individuals a considerable economic edge over their single peers. These laws exclude more than 110 million Americans — 45.2 percent of all U.S. residents age 18 and older — but they never seem to make their way into stump speeches.
A serious presidential candidate needs to talk about health care, too. But how often do candidates point out that, while employers allow married people to add a spouse to their health insurance at a discounted rate, there is no comparable system for single people? You can’t add, say, a sibling or a friend — making single adults especially vulnerable in the event they suddenly lose their job, get sick, or both.
It seems obvious that these issues — full equality under the law, the accessibility of affordable health care — matter. “You shouldn’t have to get married to have equal access to really basic benefits and protection,” DePaulo said. But singledom carries with it the stigma of frivolity, the fantasy of a one-dimensional existence centered around one’s social and sexual life. The reaction to the notion of “singlism,” DePaulo said, “is often very dismissive and snide.”
In addition to being, to use a technical term, rude, “There’s a real irony to being so insulting and marginalizing of single people, and that is that they are really critical voters,” DePaulo said. “They vote overwhelmingly for progressive candidates, especially single women and single black women. They are in the corners of the Democrats and yet their rate of voting is not as high as that of married women.”
“If Democrats care about winning,” she said. “They should care about their single women voters.”
This article previously stated that Woodrow Wilson was unmarried when he was first elected. His first wife died during his first term and he remarried the following year. The headline has been updated to reflect this fact.