Oct. 26, 2020
When Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, much attention was paid to the fact that she is the first woman of color to appear on a national ticket (her mother was from India, her father from Jamaica). However, less attention has been paid to another characteristic of Harris that may break new ground, or at least break recent precedent.
It appears (from some quick research on Wikipedia) that she is the first nominee for national office on a major-party ticket since at least 1952 (which is as far back as I went) who was not a parent of her own children.
Harris is a stepmother to her husband Douglas Emhoff’s two children from his first marriage, but they were apparently both teenagers when she married him in 2014. So she has never had the experience of raising a child from birth, or even from childhood.
This struck me because in 2017 at the World Congress of Families in Budapest, Hungary, one of the speakers mentioned that all three of the leaders of the major Western European powers at the time—Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s Theresa May—although married, were childless. (Merkel and Macron, like Harris, have stepchildren; Theresa May and her husband struggled with infertility.)
The speaker seemed to suggest this raised a question about the extent to which they could personally empathize with the challenges of family life, and suggested that by their own choices they might be showing the relatively low priority they placed on the importance of family formation in general.
It’s unclear whether voters will have such concerns about Harris, or whether it will have an impact on their decisions on Election Day. But Harris herself has given evidence that she is conscious of the issue, since she has gone out of her way to emphasize the loving bonds that unite her with her stepchildren Cole and Ella—who call her “Momala.” In May of 2019, when Harris was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, she wrote a Mother’s Day article for Elle in which she appears to be deliberately trying to portray herself as someone who does understand the struggles and difficult choices of parenting.
Obviously, the Constitution has no “parenthood test” for public office, and Donald Trump himself may serve as evidence that voters care more about the candidates’ policy positions than their personal lives. Nevertheless, the nomination of a childless candidate, who did not marry and form a blended family until she was almost 50, may be at least symbolic of some significant differences between the two major political parties—not just on family issues, but with respect to family structures.
The evidence seems to be strong, for example, that married people are more likely to vote Republican than single people. Exit polls after the 2016 election showed that among married voters (59 percent of the voting population), Donald Trump out-polled Hillary Clinton by 52-44 percent, but among the unmarried (41 percent of voters), Clinton beat Trump 55-37 percent. However, this marriage gap was even larger in favor of Mitt Romney in the 2012 election—even though Romney ultimately lost and Trump won. Research on voter turnout has also shown that married people are more likely to vote in the first place—a fact which should be an advantage for Republicans.
With regard to parental status, the evidence is more mixed. Republicans tend to have more total children than Democrats, by a large margin. It’s been calculated that on average, “100 conservative adults will raise 208 children, while 100 liberal adults will raise a mere 147.” In fact, the top 10 states in children per capita are all heavily Republican “red states.” This “fertility gap” between the parties may give Republicans an inter-generational advantage.
While Republicans may have more children, in my research I was unable to find definitive proof that merely being a parent (regardless of marital status or the number of children) makes people more likely to vote Republican. One article asserts that Barack Obama won a large majority of the votes of parents in 2012—but no source was cited. The turnout data suggests that married people without children are the most likely to vote, while parents who have never married are the least likely to vote.
Sociologist Brad Wilcox has noted that cultural factors are at work—“married Americans tend to be more socially conservative and religious than their unmarried peers”—but there are economic ones as well:
We know that men, women, and children in married families are more likely to enjoy financial success, economic stability, and private health insurance. This means that married adults typically pay more in taxes and depend less upon the government for their financial welfare. These financial factors, then, probably help to explain why marrieds are more likely to vote Republican.
This may also explain the mixed data on parenthood and voting—single parents (who are more likely to depend on government assistance) may be more likely to vote Democratic, while married parents are more likely to vote Republican.
The person who poses the most direct contrast to the childless Harris, and the most dramatic illustration of the family structure differences between the parties, is not Harris’s opponent, Vice President Mike Pence (father of three). Instead, it may be President Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court—Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the mother of five biological children and two adopted ones.
It has been widely noted (sometimes, from the Left, sarcastically) that Barrett would be the first mother of school-aged children to serve on the nation’s highest Court.