The day following the 2012 Democratic National Convention, polling firms noted that Michelle Obama’s speech received over one million more online views than President Clinton’s speech, more than eight times the number of online views received by President Obama’s speech, and more views than all of the speeches made at the Republican National Convention combined (1). Mrs. Obama’s speech also drove unprecedented levels of social media activity, generating an average of 28,003 tweets per minute, nearly double the tweets for which Mitt Romney’s RNC acceptance speech was responsible (some 14,289 tweets per minute, according to USA Today). And no less notably, the picture of Mrs. Obama hugging her husband on the 2012 campaign trail in Iowa, wearing a quintessentially American red and white gingham sundress, was the most re-tweeted and received more likes on Facebook than any photo in history. Michelle Obama has also been documented as the most televised American first lady, with 44 television appearances from 2008 to 2011 alone, dwarfing Laura Bush’s 12 appearances from 2001 to 2004 and Hillary Clinton’s 19 appearances from 1993 to 1996 (2). When she appears on primetime television, networks witness hikes in their ratings, as the producers of The Biggest Loser, iCarly, Top Chef, and Parks and Recreation recently learned.
There is no doubt that presidential spouses are media superstars. What is more surprising is that their ability to attract the attention of Americans, and their propensity to actively seek that attention, surpasses that of other well-known surrogates and sometimes, presidents themselves. By promulgating stereotypes of first ladies as personal confidantes to the president and behind-the-scenes power brokers for decades, social scientists, historians, and journalists have failed to recognize one of the most important roles of presidential spouses: to enhance the president’s public image and expand public support for the administration’s policy agenda.
Like most labyrinthine intellectual journeys, the idea for the research that informed this book is rooted in a simple puzzle. Presidential spouses are some of the most recognizable figures in American politics and among the least studied figures in political science. To understand why presidential communications scholars have not paid attention to first ladies, it’s essential to understand that political operatives and political scientists do not agree on the importance of many aspects of U.S. politics. The lack of empirical work on presidential spouses is indeed characteristic of the enduring, albeit shrinking, disconnect between those who practice politics and those who study them. Political operatives and campaign professionals devote tremendous amounts of time and resources to the task of improving the public image of presidents and presidential candidates despite widespread consensus among scholars that their efforts rarely change public opinion in the aggregate. Perhaps because of my own background as a gubernatorial campaign staffer turned academic researcher, I thought it was critical to consult both of these groups in my investigation of the role presidential spouses play in White House communications strategy and their ability to shape public opinion of presidents and their policies. If Americans are keenly interested in the president’s spouse and political operatives actively seek to capitalize on this interest, shouldn’t the people responsible for studying the presidency care?
There are a few reasons political practitioners and political scientists disagree on the importance of presidential spouses. The first is data availability. There have only been 45 first ladies in U.S. history, and because they are not elected officials, information about them was not systematically collected and organized until recently. Gallup conducted the first public opinion poll about the president’s spouse in 1939, and job approval ratings for first ladies were not measured until the Clinton administration. Furthermore, public appropriations for staff to the first lady were not routinely designated by Congress until 1979. For these reasons, records produced by the Office of the First Lady that facilitate empirical research on the formal role of presidential spouses are scarce, and much of the existing scholarly work on first ladies is weak. Without descriptive statistics in which to anchor their claims, American politics scholars, journalists, and historians have relied on typologies of first ladies to assess their roles. For example, scholars have largely deemed Laura Bush a traditional first lady rather than a modern or activist first lady, citing her lack of interest in politics and comparatively low educational attainment to her predecessor. The evidence I present later in this book suggests these typologies are severely flawed. Fortunately, there has been very consistent documentation of the activities of the first lady since 1992, when the advent of the Internet enabled the National Archives to organize and preserve speeches made by first ladies as well as transcripts of their public remarks online. I make use of these materials by analyzing nearly 2,000 public speeches made by Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama in the last three presidential administrations.
The second reason political scientists may have neglected the Office of the First Lady as a legitimate research topic is measurement. American politics scholars have increasingly moved away from questions that cannot be answered through the analysis of quantified data. Though quantifying speeches delivered by first ladies provides valuable evidence for my suggestion that the strategic mobilization of presidential spouses by the White House has become a more common practice, there are critical aspects of this pursuit that cannot be informed solely through the numerical analysis of public records. For example, why does the first lady appear in public so often? What purpose do these appearances serve? What makes presidential spouses appealing to the American public? As I mention later in the book, there is hardly a way to answer these questions reliably without consulting the political professionals responsible for deploying first ladies on behalf of the White House and on the campaign trail. Interviews with elites are important tools for evaluating existing hypotheses and generating new ones.
Encouragingly, in recent years there have been more examples of political practitioners collaborating successfully with political scientists. Campaign strategists have adopted some of the tools political methodology offers for gauging the impact of messaging tactics such as television advertising, and have even allowed scholars to conduct experiments that test different strategies for ad placement and content. This kind of experimentation was common in the 2012 elections, when the Obama campaign began buying air space in Montana early in the summer in order to test the effectiveness of ads in a low-risk setting. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in addition to recruiting many of the methodologically minded staff that played a part in Obama’s 2012 victory, is actively looking for more data scientists to join Hillary for America, according to her campaign website. Scholars like Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995), Holbrook (1996) and Shaw (1999) have discovered that campaign events have a marginal, though not long-lasting, effect on voting behavior. For instance, in their 2003 study, Hillygus and Jackman found that support for Bush in 2000 increased after the debates, but not during the conventions, and support for Gore increased following the conventions, but not during the debates (3). Though first ladies are merely one instrument in the presidential communications toolkit, studies that argue communications strategies employed by White House and campaign staff do often influence the perceptions and behavior of voters are promising, especially because presidential spouses have become such a big part of these strategies. In this book I assess the impact of public appearances made by the first lady on individual evaluations of the president and his policy agenda using controlled experiments not unlike those employed in the aforementioned campaign advertising studies. Even if the first lady’s influence on mass public opinion is difficult to ascertain, experiments allow opinion to be measured at an individual, personal level, where nonnumeric mechanisms like the supposed humanizing quality of presidential spouses do their work.
The final reason some political scientists have been dismissive of the study of first ladies pertains to gender. During my search for advisors to guide me through the process of writing a book, I encountered scholars who thought the study of political spouses would demean academic discussions about women and politics. One congressional scholar declined to be part of my committee as long as my topic involved first ladies, but offered to help me identify a more appropriate subject on women in elected office. Another professor I consulted expressed concern that focusing my research agenda on first ladies could tarnish my reputation in academia, and warned that I might not be taken seriously among other political scientists. To boot, a certain strain of academic insult that would pass as a compliment in most professional settings was bestowed on me: that my dissertation topic had “mass appeal.” The way political scientists see it, compared to the gender and politics literature that exists in the mainstream of the discipline—which largely focuses on the obstacles women face while running for office, their underrepresentation in appointed and elected government positions, and the difference they make when they are elected—at first glance, research centered on the president’s wife appears inconsequential. It is not. The powers of the president’s spouse are informal, but they are formidable.
First, first ladies have more access to the president than any single White House staff member or government official. Though the efforts of historians to assess the private influence of first ladies do not meet the standards required by social science to make definitive claims, the potential for spouses to impact presidential decision-making behind closed doors should not be ignored. Second, presidential spouses receive more public attention than most elected officials. Spouses are also routinely covered by a wide range of popular media outlets patronized by Americans who may not consume a lot of political news. Finally, first ladies are more popular than presidents. In almost every year since the American National Election Studies began measuring public opinion of first ladies in addition to the president, first ladies have enjoyed higher job approval ratings than their husbands. Even as Hillary Clinton faced substantial public backlash in 1993 surrounding her involvement in the Clinton administration’s healthcare initiative, her job approval rating averaged 64% while Bill Clinton’s averaged 55% (4). Likewise, Michelle Obama’s approval ratings remained higher than President Obama’s ratings during the first year of the administration when he enjoyed notable popularity. This book tests the assertions that first, the White House harnesses the first lady’s popularity strategically in order to garner public support for the president and his policy agenda, and second, that these appeals have a positive effect on individual evaluations of the president and certain administration-sponsored policies. I hope you will enjoy the book and keep its findings close in mind as we embark on another historic American presidential election.
1. Calao 2012
2. Tracey 2012, Jansen 2012, Winfield 2010
3. Hillygus and Jackman 2003: 583
4. See Gallup 2006, Gallup 2009, and Gallup Historical Trends 2014.