Voting for Two: How Spouses of Presidential Candidates Have Stepped into the Spotlight

I have always held a special place in my heart for First Ladies. When I first visited D.C. at age 12, I stood in awe at the beautiful dresses worn by the exceptional women in the First Ladies Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. As I grew older, I learned there was much more to these women than gorgeous gowns and hosting dinner parties. I realized that however unofficial it may be, their position in our Nation’s government is an important one.

Despite my liberal upbringing, my love for First Ladies is completely party neutral (who doesn’t love Nancy Reagan?). That said, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton (or as I like to call them, “Mobama” and “H-Dog”) are the top contenders on my list. So when my mock trial coach said to me, “Why is Michelle Obama slated as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention? I don’t care what she has to say. She’ll just say how much she loves her husband,” I was aghast. When I realized an appropriate response was not one that centered on how fabulous her outfit choices are, I challenged myself to think of a reason why her speech would be an important one. Instead, I pointed out that Ann Romney was also a keynote speaker the previous week at the Republican National Convention. I thought this was clever, as my coach is pro-Mitty. Unfortunately, I saw that his disinterest in the wives was not rooted in partisanship, when he quickly dismissed her speech as well.

So then there was this question: why are these ladies given such a spotlight? That’s when it hit me: it’s 2012. Women have been showing up at voting precincts for nearly 100 years. I proposed that this means two things for why the wives of Presidential candidates are given more attention now than ever before. First, they are likely being used to help gain the coveted women’s vote. (Quick sidebar: I’m so pumped that I live in an era where people are fighting to earn my vote– not for my right to vote.) But I don’t think it stops there. My second idea was that we (my mock trial coach excluded) actually do care about what they are saying.They won’t just be wearing fancy dresses and throwing dinner parties if their husband gets elected- and that’s not even just because the office of the First Lady is actually a thing now. I think it’s because the role of wife has evolved as well. At the end of the day, what my President’s wife thinks is important because they are a unit. I am voting for “the decider,” as G-Dubs so eloquently put it. So while technically I am voting for one person to make those decisions, I am aware that what that person’s spouse thinks will influence his decision making. Her morals are their morals. Her dreams are their dreams. So I don’t just want to see how gorgeous her dress is; I want to know that my President isn’t married to someone whose ideology scares me. So, my paper will start with the election of 1988 and analyze how the spouses in each campaign from then on have become more and more important, and then I will determine what this might mean in the future. Finally, I will make an argument deciding if this is a good thing or not (spoiler: I’m probably going to say it’s good :P).

Last, I want to add that I apologize for using “she” and “wife” so often. There have clearly been exceptions, but unfortunately none have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue…yet.

Samantha Farish, Middle Tennessee State University

About Sam Farish

I am a senior pursuing a B.S. in both Political Science and Psychology (official) and a PhD in Mock Trial (unofficial) at Middle Tennessee State University. I am currently the President of my school's Mock Trial team and compete in Moot Court as well. When I am not pretending to be a lawyer, I enjoy rock climbing, baking, and taking road trips.
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2 Responses to Voting for Two: How Spouses of Presidential Candidates Have Stepped into the Spotlight

  1. katelynnoellee says:

    Hello Samantha! I absolutely love your enthusiasm for your topic! I think you have made a very insightful observation about the growing importance of the First Ladies. I find it interesting that many First Ladies have been recognized for contributing to a certain cause or program to which they felt a connection. Yet, prior to your benchmark of 1988, the causes and contributions of First Ladies seemed to be regarded more as “hobbies.” Nowadays, First Ladies certainly do contribute to central policy areas (Hilary Clinton’s role in health care being a key example). I’m curious, have you considered whether the role of the First Lady in influencing her husband’s policies differs according to party affiliation?

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