I hope that someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a president, and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes. –Harry S. Truman
The role of a presidential candidate’s spouse throughout history has been that of the candidate’s support system and has been more widely reported on in recent elections. Spouses have assumed many roles, from escort, to fashionista, to advocate, defender, “humanizer,” and, above all, supporter and co-campaigner. Multiple sources have deemed them campaign “surrogates” who can make the candidate seem more accessible and relatable and gain support from different groups of voters (Gerhart, VanHorn). However, there is a fine line the candidate spouse must toe when it comes to her political policies. Voters prefer spouses who praise their candidate rather than those who push policies. Potential First Ladies have many parts to play today, and these roles may change in future elections.
The roles associated with candidate wives begin early on in the campaign. Before she is well known, she is associated with her husband and framed as an “escort.” Journalists focus on how she supports her husband and if she made sacrifices to do so. As the race continues and the potential First Lady becomes more well known, journalists focus more on her style, charitable works, and her potential “role as ‘policy adviser”’ to her husband (Winfield). Her role as a policy advisor is difficult because voters prefer her to be more complacent about the policies and to let the candidate maintain the political agenda. The candidate wives, therefore, struggle with how much political action is too much (Winfield).
During her time as First Lady, the media portrayed Hillary Clinton as a creator of and strong influence on policies. Since then, journalists have compared potential First Ladies to Hillary and created the “Anti-Hillary” frame (Winfield). They claim that these “anti-Hillary” future First Ladies will be well-liked by the public because they don’t try to push a political agenda of their own. As Winfield states, “the more politically active a First Lady is, the more negative the news coverage of her tends to be” (Winfield). Winfield gives examples of anti-Hillary framing in the 2000 campaign when a journalist said,“Tipper (Gore) is an anti-Hillary”, and Gov. George Bush said, “my wife is not Hillary Clinton, she’s not going to…push forward her own political agenda at my expense” (Winfield). Alexander’s book, The Performance of Politics, also gives an example of the “anti-Hillary” frame. When Michelle Obama started to become too politically active, her motives were attacked by Conservatives and journalists. Her image was remade into that of a supportive mother and wife because those roles were more widely accepted by voters (Alexander).
During the presidential campaign, the press often portrays potential First Ladies as supporters, advocates and defenders for their husband and his policies (Winfield). A candidate’s wife is the closest person to the candidate, and therefore is very valuable to the campaign (VanHorn). In recent elections, she has presented herself in ways that make her husband look like a good candidate. She has exclaimed his good character and personal attributes or characteristics, including how wonderful their candidate is as a father and a husband. By describing what she likes about him, the potential First Lady allows the electorate to understand the candidate and connect with him on a more personal level, without even meeting him.
According to VanHorn’s studies, candidate wives employ their surrogate role to create a better image of the candidate, to rally more support for their spouse, and to get out the vote (VanHorn). By targeting certain audiences, candidate wives can attract votes that their husbands would be less likely to attract if he campaigned on his own. Candidate wives may help attract women votes for their husband more effectively than the candidate because they are able to connect and identify with women voters (VanHorn). Since the candidate’s spouse is not expected to create policies or push an agenda, they also have the opportunity to connect with people and to be more personal and casual and less political.
In studies on the presidential families from the Kennedys to the Carters, family behavior can be separated into six categories. These include “decorations, extensions, humanizers, helpmeets, moral support, and alter egos” (VanHorn). Family members with the decorations role make the candidate more appealing to the electorate. Extensions are family members who are very close to the candidate and can stand in for him when necessary. The role of the humanizer is to help the electorate see the candidate as an authentic and approachable person. Helpmeets, such as former First Ladies Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson, are family members who are close to the candidate and participate in the campaign or political process and decrease the amount of work required by their husband. The category “moral support” include relatives who give the candidate just that, the moral support he needs to persevere and continue through the campaign and the presidency. Family members in the final category, alter egos, are those who constantly interact with the candidate and are linked to his identity (VanHorn). Wives often cover many of these roles.
The role of spouses in campaigns has changed throughout the years but still has a lot of room to continue to change in the future. With new media on the rise, spouses have more outlets to be seen by the public and to support their candidate. In addition, with the increase in the number of female candidates, I am interested to see if the role of the spouse changes. VanHorn asserts that, “the wives of presidential candidates show that while women have made forays into the public realm, they are still constrained by the boundaries of a feminine sphere of influence” (VanHorn). As female candidates introduce their policy initiatives and women gain equality, it will be fascinating to see if voters accept female candidate spouses who propose their own policies, or if the “anti-Hillary” frame will continue into the future. In addition, with the rise of female candidates, voters will be forced to decide if male spouses will be able to propose their policies with or without the backlash female spouses have received for doing the same. The future of campaigns is changing, new media is growing, and women are gaining more equality in the political system. As these changes occur, the role of the candidates’ spouse as the surrogate and support system will inevitably change as well. How it will do so is the question.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Gerhart, Ann, and Philip Rucker. “Ann Romney on Campaign Trail, Helping Her Husband ‘get Through This Together’.” The Washington Post 2 Oct. 2011: n. pag. The Washington Post. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-10-02/lifestyle/35279498_1_ann-romney-anita-perry-michelle-obama/2>.
VanHorn, Abigaile Marguerite. “Candidate Wives: Spouses as Strategic Surrogates on the Presidential Campaign Trail.” Purdue University, 2010. United States — Indiana: ProQuest. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.
Winfield, Betty H, and Barbara Friedman. “Gender Politics: News Coverage of the Candidates’ Wives in Campaign 2000.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 80.3 (2003): 548–566. Sage Publications. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://jmq.sagepub.com/content/80/3/548>.