Understanding Public Opinion Toward Presidential Candidate Spouses

  • Laurel Elder
  • Brian Frederick
  • Barbara Burrell


This chapter develops the study’s key theoretical frameworks guiding the analysis of public perceptions toward candidate spouses—new traditionalism, incumbency advantage, symbolic representation, polarization, and the degree to which attitudes toward candidate spouses are shaped by as well as independent from attitudes toward the candidates themselves—and considers these frameworks in the context of public opinion data on candidate spouses over the past 30 years. Using over-time data, showing favorable ratings of presidential candidate spouses from 1988 to 2016 and a list of all the questions pollsters have asked about candidate spouses, as well as original survey data collected specifically for this study, Chap. 2 investigates how Americans’ preference for traditional candidate spouses has been challenged or reinforced by presidential candidate spouses, and, importantly, how the public has responded. This chapter also considers how traditional expectations for candidate spouses have evolved and how modern spouses are expected to be quite active within the traditional frame, which this book labels the new traditionalism. Longitudinal data are also used to explore the conditional effect of incumbency advantage and the degree to which candidate spouses can rise above party polarization and maintain an image in the public’s mind independent of that of their spouses.


  1. Abramowitz, Alan I., and Stephen Webster. 2016. The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century. Electoral Studies 41 (1): 12–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ansolabehere, Stephen, and James M. Snyder Jr. 2004. The Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Elections: An Analysis of State and Federal Offices, 1942–2000. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 1 (15): 315–338.Google Scholar
  3. Benze, James G., Jr. 1990. Nancy Reagan: China Doll or Dragon Lady? Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (4): 777–790.Google Scholar
  4. Borman, Jan. 2003. Depression in Women’s Magazines. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 9 (3): 71–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Borrelli, Maryanne. 2001. Competing Conceptions of the First Ladyship: Public Responses to Betty Ford’s 60 Minutes Interview. Presidential Studies Quarterly 31: 397–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burrell, Barbara. 1999. The Governmental Status of the First Lady in Law and in Public Perception. In Women in Politics: Outsiders or Insiders? ed. Lois Duke Whitaker, 233–247. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  7. ———. 2000. Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady: The People’s Perspective. The Social Science Journal 37 (4): 529–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burrell, Barbara, Laurel Elder, and Brian Frederick. 2011. From Hillary to Michelle: Public Opinion and the Spouses of Presidential Candidates. Presidential Studies Quarterly 41 (1): 156–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Campbell, Angus, Phillip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  10. Caroli, Betty Boyd. 2010. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Oxford: Oxford University.Google Scholar
  11. Carroll, Susan J. 2005. Voter Choices: Meet You at the Gender Gap. In Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, ed. Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dolan, Kathleen. 2008. Is There a “Gender Affinity Effect” in American Politics? Information, Affect and Candidate Sex in U.S. House Elections. Political Research Quarterly 61 (1): 79–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dowd, Maureen. 2004. The Doctor is Out. New York Times, January 15.Google Scholar
  14. Dubriwny, Tasha W. 2005. First Ladies and Feminism: Laura Bush as Advocate for Women’s and Children’s Rights. Women’s Studies in Communications 28 (1): 84–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Elder, Laurel, and Brian Frederick. 2017. Perceptions of Candidate Spouses in the 2012 Presidential Election: The Role of Gender, Race, Religion, and Partisanship. Politics, Groups, and Identities.
  16. Ferguson, Michaele L. 2005. ‘W’ Stands for Women: Feminism and Security Rhetoric in the Post 9/11 Bush Administration. Politics & Gender 1 (1): 9–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ferguson, Michaele L., and Lori Jo Marso, eds. 2007. W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Gallup/USA Today Poll, September, 2004 [survey question]. USGALLUP.04SEPT013.R35F. Gallup Organization [producer]. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL [distributor]. Accessed August 10, 2017.Google Scholar
  19. Gfk Omni Survey. 2017. KnowledgePanel (KP) OmniWeb Survey Conducted by Gfk Custom Research LLC, September 15–17.Google Scholar
  20. Green, Donald P., Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler. 2002. Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Jacobson, Gary C., and Jamie L. Carson. 2015. The Politics of Congressional Elections. 9th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  22. Knuckey, Jonathan, and Myunghee Kim. 2016. Evaluations of Michelle Obama as First Lady: The Role Racial Resentment. Presidential Studies Quarterly 46 (2): 365–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lewis-Beck, Michael S., William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg. 2008. The American Voter Revisited. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mandziuk, Roseann M. 2017. Whither the Good Wife? 2016 Presidential Candidate Spouses in the Gendered Spaces of Contemporary Politics. Quarterly Journal of Speech 103 (1–2): 136–159. Scholar
  25. Mayhew, David R. 2008. Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record. Presidential Studies Quarterly 123 (2): 201–228.Google Scholar
  26. Rhodan, Maya. 2016. Hillary Clinton Says Bill Clinton Would Be in Charge of the Economy After Election. Time, May 16.Google Scholar
  27. Saad, Lydia. 2017. Gallup Vault: A See Change in Support for Working Women. Gallup, July 20.Google Scholar
  28. Shoop, Tiffany J. 2010. From Professionals to Potential First Ladies: How Newspapers Told the Stories of Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama. Sex Roles 63: 807–819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Simien, Evelyn M. 2016. Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Stokes, Ashli Quesinberry. 2005. First Ladies in Waiting: The Fight for Rhetorical Legitimacy on the Campaign Trail. In The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective, ed. Robert J. Denton. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  31. Sulfaro, Valerie. 2007. Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Presidential Studies Quarterly 37: 486–514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Thurman, Judith. 2004. The Candidate’s Wife: Teresa Heinz Kerry is an Uncharted Element on the Road to the White House. The New Yorker, September 27.Google Scholar
  33. Tien, Charles, Regan Checchio, and Arthur H. Miller. 1999. The Impact of First Wives on Presidential Campaigns and Elections. In Women in Politics: Outsiders or Insiders? ed. Lois Duke Whitaker, 149–168. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  34. Troy, Gil. 2006. Hillary Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Vigil, Tammy R. 2014. Feminine Views in the Feminine Style: Convention Speeches by Presidential Nominees’ Spouses. Southern Communication Journal 79: 327–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Washington Post. 2011. Kaiser/Washington Post Black Women in America Survey, Oct, 2011 [survey question]. USSSRS.2011WPH029.Q11A. Social Science Research Solutions [producer]. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL [distributor]. Accessed August 18, 2017.Google Scholar
  37. Wright, Lauren. 2016. On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. Praeger.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laurel Elder
    • 1
  • Brian Frederick
    • 2
  • Barbara Burrell
    • 3
  1. 1.Political ScienceHartwick CollegeOneontaUSA
  2. 2.Political ScienceBridgewater State UniversityBridgewaterUSA
  3. 3.Political ScienceNorthern Illinois UniversityDekalbUSA

Personalised recommendations