Politicians' Spouses: Assets or Liabilities?

Marc Ambinder, over at National Journal‘s “Hotline On Call” blog, writes that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will be using his wife more and more as he prepares for a presidential run:

“She humanizes her husband, who can be stiff and workmanlike on the campaign trail. She’s quick with a quip in one-to-one conversations. She’s a reminder that Frist, a heart surgeon, has a big heart — is a family man, with three children.”

This got me thinking of how political spouses have been utilized by past campaigns.

President Bush has certainly utilized Laura Bush to soften his image.

John F. Kennedy was benefited greatly by Jacky Kennedy’s style and class. In fact, she sometimes overshadowed him, as was the case when he once jokingly introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”

Sometimes the roles are reversed:

Ronald Reagan, who was perhaps a bit too trusting, benefited from having Nancy by his side. Nancy Reagan was more skeptical and suspicious of people, and found ways to get rid of people she thought might hurt her husband. Close Reagan friends speculate we would never have had a President Reagan without Nancy Reagan. (In the case of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, they may have actually softened their wives’ image).

Sure, Nancy’s concern for Reagan sometimes overstepped the boundaries, causing staffers like Lyn Nofziger and Mike Deaver some sleepless nights. And Nancy also created problems for President Reagan when her consultations of an astrologer were made public. Nevertheless, her presence was, by far, a net gain.

This phenomenon of utilizing the candidate’s spouse isn’t just for national politics. Local candidates can also benefit from having a spouse serve as a surrogate when speaking events coincide. Additionally, a “spouse letter” from a male politicians’ wife (targeted to female voters) has long been a staple of political campaigns.

In a North Dakota congressional race I managed, we made use of our candidate’s terrific spouse in order to soften his image. Our tack didn’t go unnoticed by the press, either. When we featured her prominently in our TV ads, the Bismarck Tribune wrote:

“In both of the ads, Sand’s wife, Holly, is featured prominently and does almost all of the talking. When asked why she was the focus of the ads, Lewis deadpanned, ‘She’s better looking than he is.’ Touche.”

But not every campaign manager is lucky enough to work with great political spouses (as I have). Anyone who has worked on several political campaigns can tell you stories about meddling spouses who don’t know the first thing about politics, yet exert tremendous authority over the direction of the campaign. A meddling spouse has been the downfall of many campaigns.

Often, spouses are underutilized by the campaign.

This was the case when Howard Dean’s wife, Judith, reluctantly joined the campaign trail. She had basically been invisible for two years, and then all of a sudden, she was holding hands with Howard Dean. It just didn’t ring true to the average person, and smacked of desperation.

But while an absent spouse can be a problem, the worst scenario (as was the case with John Kerry’s wife), is a spouse who is both an internal and an external liability. I have no doubt that Teresa Heinz Kerry cost her husband at least a point or two.

In short, political spouses can be a tremendous help to a politician. Aspiring candidates should choose their spouses carefully.

Time will tell if Bill Frist’s tactic will pay off. He certainly needs to tweak his image right now, and this is a good step in that direction.