Polls and Elections: From Hillary to Michelle: Public Opinion and the Spouses of Presidential Candidates

By Burrell, Barbara; Elder, Laurel et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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Polls and Elections: From Hillary to Michelle: Public Opinion and the Spouses of Presidential Candidates


Burrell, Barbara, Elder, Laurel, Frederick, Brian, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt, pollsters have surveyed the public about first ladies, although such opinion taking has mainly occurred when the first lady has done or said something out of keeping with her traditional, supportive, behind-the- scenes role. More recently, pollsters have turned their attention to would-be first ladies, reflecting the increasingly visible roles of spouses on the campaign trail. The wives of candidates now make hundreds of appearances during the presidential campaign and receive intense media attention in both news outlets and entertainment-oriented venues (MacManus and Quecan 2008; Stokes 2005). They are significant surrogates for the presidential candidates on the campaign trail (Burrell 2001). Thus, the public has many opportunities to learn about and develop views on the candidates' spouses. In light of their greater prominence in the campaign process, how has the public reacted to the spouses who have campaigned on their husbands' behalf?

This study analyzes public opinion data on presidential candidate spouses from 1992, when Hillary Clinton's words and involvement in her husband's campaign generated much commentary and polling, through 2008, when Michelle Obama stimulated similar attention. The survey data are used to assess and compare the public's opinions about potential presidential wives, including Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, Laura Bush, Tipper Gore, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Cindy McCain, and Michelle Obama. By comparing attitudes over the last five presidential cycles, we are able to identify key areas of stability and change in Americans' attitudes toward these significant actors on the presidential campaign trail who are mired in gendered perspectives. Additionally, we use the survey data to explore how attitudes differ across key demographics, including sex, partisanship, and age. Finally, we explore whether attitudes about presidential candidate spouses have an independent impact on the favorability ratings of the candidates.

This research provides insight into public attitudes about would-be first ladies, an issue to which political scientists have paid minimal attention. Despite this lack of scholarly inquiry, we believe that it merits more extensive analysis for several important reasons. First, studies have shown that would-be first ladies play a significant role in shaping affect toward presidential candidates as well as the choices of voters (Burrell 2001; Mughan and Burden 1995, 1998). Thus, understanding the public's attitudes toward candidate spouses enriches our understanding of campaigns and elections. Second, the candidates' spouses are in many ways running for the position of first lady, a position that has the potential for considerable power (Han 2007; O'Connor, Nye, and Van Assendelft 1996), as well as conflicting expectations (Borrelli 2001; Burrell 2001; Stokes 2005). In fact, pollsters regularly ask voters, if they were able to cast a separate ballot for first lady, whom would they vote for and what role should she take on in the White House? This study provides insights into the public's expectations for this unique position in our political system. Exploring public attitudes about potential first ladies also provides an intriguing window into contemporary gender politics and changing cultural values in American society.

The Role and Impact of Presidential Candidates' Wives

Although some candidate wives acted as surrogates for their husbands prior to the 1990s, (1) many view the 1992 election as a break with the past in terms of the importance and visibility of would-be first ladies (Burrell 2001; Mughan and Burden 1995). During the 1992 general election, not only did Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton take on unusually active roles in their husbands' campaigns, but also their contrasting life choices--traditional homemaker versus "modern" working woman--became a major issue in the campaign (Mughan and Burden 1995, 137-38; Templin 1999).

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