Presidential Election 2016: Do Candidates “Better Halves” Matter?


The 2016 race for the presidency is shaping up to be unlike anything we've seen before. With the South Carolina primaries curbing Jeb Bush's race for the White House and invigorating Donald Trump's plans even more, the path to the presidency will be one that we won't forget.

AirPR has been tracking media coverage of the US presidential candidates’ spouses as a way to see which candidate is getting legitimate media traction. It’s an interesting way of looking at the race and one which I haven't seen before.

The question at hand was: “Is there ANY correlation whatsoever in terms of spouses who rule the spotlight and the ultimate success of the candidates with whom they share a, ah-hem, bed?
With such a wide field of candidates, particularly on the Republican side, AirPR wanted to see what trends emerged when it came to press that was focused less on the candidates and more on the candidates’ spouses. Here's what they found.

1. It’s the Bill, Bill, and Bill media show

Since September 2015, top tier media outlets have written nearly 6,000 articles that focus on any or several of the candidates’ spouses. Here’s a breakdown of influential coverage for the top 5 spouses:

● Bill Clinton: 3,890 articles
● Melania Trump: 461 articles
● Heidi Cruz: 148 articles
● Jane O’Meara Sanders: 97 articles
● Jeanette Rubio: 56 articles

2. The media’s interest in Melania Trump and Bill Clinton are for entirely different reasons

In the case of the candidates’ spouses, Bill Clinton and Melania Trump lead the pack without question. The reasons for this are clear: Bill Clinton already has high visibility, and as a former president, there is a steady level of media coverage that other people simply don’t have. In the case of Melania Trump, there appears to be a huge curiosity factor. When you start to see articles saying how much (or how little) Melania Trump says, you know you’re in for an interesting ride.

Point blank: Both these spouses have star power. While former President Clinton is viewed as a campaign weapon, it remains to be seen what Melania’s role in Trump’s campaign will be. That mystique in and of itself may be one of the key reasons driving her media coverage.

3. It’s not about the economy...or the debates...stupid

Prior to tracking spousal media coverage, we made the assumption that when a candidate did well at a particular event or commanded a certain topic during a debate, a stronger spotlight would shine on the candidates’ “better half”. In fact, this didn’t happen at all.

Take Jeannette Rubio, for example. Her husband Marco Rubio, by most pundits’ reports, has performed consistently in the top 4 or 5 with regard to debate performance. This strength hasn’t had any noticeable impact on the number of stories featuring Jeannette Rubio.

4. No topics are off limits anymore

It’s getting ugly out there, particularly when it comes to Bill Clinton’s past infidelities, Melania’s aforementioned silence, or Heidi Cruz’s children. Long gone are the days where the masses were shocked when Bill Clinton was famously asked on the campaign trail if he wore “boxers or briefs”. Today, questions facing the spouses run the gamut.

A recent New York Times feature on Jeannette Rubio focused on how her religious and conservative beliefs often shaped her husband’s beliefs. An article of this nature in 2008 or even 2012 would have had a huge ripple effect on a campaign. In reality, because of faster media cycles and the changing face of media consumption and dissemination, this piece was widely socialized via Twitter and LinkedIn, but didn’t move the dial in public perception or buzz.

5. The spouses are mostly waiting in the bullpen...for now

Early coverage on the candidates’ spouses, for now, is limited. The campaigns seem to grasp of the fact that while spousal exposure can be equated with a sign of a campaign’s legitimacy, there is fear of peaking too soon.

As with the the aforementioned New York Times piece on Jeannette Rubio, the story is more about the past than the present. Campaign strategists recognize that increased presence of the “woman behind the man” or the “man behind the woman” humanizes the candidate. We expect you’ll see more of that, particularly in the Republican race, once the first round of primaries reduces the number of candidates.

The beginning of primary season will drastically shift the role husbands and wives play on the campaign trail. If early 2016 is any indication, expect to be seeing and reading as much about the spouses as you will the candidates.

But what is it about presidential spouses that fascinates us so much? Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, AirPR CEO has shared his thoughts.

Why do you think the media and voters are fascinated with political spouses?

I think it’s the starting point of the fascination that reveals the most about Americans' fascination with the candidates’ spouses. Early on in the campaigning process, to many, there are a group of politicians vying for our attention. Once voters learn about their preferred candidate, they start to ask , “What will this person look like as a president?”. It’s then they view the bigger picture - their family, whether or not they bring an air of leadership or humanity to the role, and of course the role his or her spouse might play . The coverage we’ve seen so far indicates that the media and general voting public are mostly interested in the frontrunners’ spouses from either party, but true to form with this year’s election, there’s no such thing as business as usual. In terms of media coverage and interest, it really has been the Bill Clinton and Melania Trump show. With President Clinton, he brings a steady stream of coverage that is unprecedented for a candidate’s spouse. With Melania Trump, there’s an air of mystique, partly because she’s been mostly quiet during the campaign and also because, well, the Trump campaign is playing with a new set of rules. It’s fascinating to watch. Additionally, I also think the media is fascinated by political spouses because people are wondering how much a political spouse's influence will ultimate influence American politics directly via the candidate.

How do you think the spouses will be used by the campaigns moving forward? What is their untapped power?

As we go deeper into the primary season and closer to the national conventions, the spouses of the front runners are going to play a complementary role. With Hillary, we have a pretty good idea of how her campaign is going to use Bill. We saw in 2008 that he can be an effective (at times) attack dog to defend against the slings of the opposition. While it hurt her campaign to some extent in ’08, so far he’s taking on a similar role with this campaign, albeit more of an “attack dog meets elder statesman” persona. With Trump, I think you’re going to see Melania Trump step into the limelight more as Trump pivots toward to the center. His campaign will rely on her to soften his edges. Ted Cruz’ wife, Heidi, will play a similar role, as Ted will have to battle the perception that he’s unlikable. I think the one wild card in here is Jane Sanders - we haven’t quite seen what she’s capable of yet. She might have to represent a younger voice, as Bernie would be the the oldest person to ever take office if he wins. We’re already seeing a few interviews where one of her key messages is “75 is the new 55”. For all of the candidates, I think you’re going to see more leaning on the spouses in this election than ever.

Thanks to AirPR for sharing this fascinating data with us! 
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