As the primary phase of the presidential campaign winds down speculation about the prospect of a Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton general election showdown has heated up. In so many ways a matchup between these presidential contenders breaks new ground as far as U.S. presidential elections are concerned. One significant departure from previous campaigns can be found in the way each candidates' spouses break the mold from the traditional expectations Americans have for the individuals who have occupied these roles.
On the Democratic side with Bill Clinton not only are we likely to have the first male presidential spouse in U.S. history, he also happens to be a former U.S. President with a very unique and controversial political record in his own right. For the Republicans, Melania Trump, a Slovenian immigrant with an extensive modeling career which became a major flashpoint during the course of the GOP primary casts a very different profile than her predecessors in many ways as well. Since Clinton and Trump deviate so prominently from the traditional norms that presidential candidate spouses have adopted in recent years what does this development mean for how the American public views them in the 2016 election?
Based on our own research examining public attitudes toward the spouses of the two major party candidates in general elections from 1992-2012 along with poll results gauging the favorability of Bill Clinton and Melania Trump in the 2016 campaign we can offer a preliminary answer this question. We have compiled the aggregate favorable and unfavorable ratings for the spouses of the Republican and Democratic nominees from 1992-2012 with an update for poll questions asked so far in 2016 which we include here.
From these data several trends emerge that shed light on how the public views the spouses of the leading presidential contenders in 2016. First, the public expresses a preference for spouses who embody a more traditionalistic view of the First Lady (or in the case of Bill Clinton, first gentlemen) who does not intend to play a major policy role in presidential administration. Barbara and Laura Bush represent this preference with the highest favorability ratings over this period. Hillary Clinton's high unfavorable ratings in 1996 were due in part to perceptions that she was too deeply involved in helping shape White House policy. In 2016 Bill Clinton also has some of the highest unfavorable ratings in this time series. This finding can be linked his well-established political record so naturally he engenders less support than spouses largely outside of the political fray like the Bushes and even Michelle Obama.
There have been fewer polls asking about Melania Trump than Bill Clinton so far in the 2016 campaign but what indicators are available suggest the public is more negative than positive about her so far. If this trend were to continue over the course of the campaign she would be the only spouse of the past two decades with a net negative favorability rating.
This development can be tied to another trend we find in our research about how the public evaluates spouses. While they are certainly viewed as distinct political entities in their own right, and they possess a somewhat unique ability to rise above the political fray, citizens' feeling toward the candidates' spouses are colored by their own views of the presidential candidates themselves. While both general election nominees are perceived unfavorably by the public Donald Trump has the highest negatives of any major nominee in recent memory.
Since Melania Trump is not a well known quantity among most Americans much of the reaction to her is mediated by how the public feels toward Donald Trump. Unless or until Donald Trump can reverse his standing with American voters Melania Trump's ratings will suffer in comparison to the spouses of the past few election cycles.
Of course these early numbers can fluctuate throughout the course of the campaign with new information encountered by voters. In recent presidential elections, candidate spouses have been well positioned to campaign on behalf of their husbands due to their high approval ratings, higher than their husbands in many cases and receive some level of support from those across the partisan aisle.
Whether Melania Trump will be able to help her husband's campaign in a similar way depends in part on whether she can reverse her favorable/unfavorable scores. She may be able to improve her image with a well-received GOP convention speech in Cleveland. Particularly if she emphasizes that she will play the traditional role of First Lady in a Donald Trump administration.
As communications scholar Tammy Vigil has noted, the popularity of female presidential candidate spouses has been helped when they embrace traditionally gendered rhetoric and issue selection. The unfortunate downside of such strategies, at least for those interested in gender equality, are that they act to reinforce traditional gender roles rather than using these high profile opportunities to underscore that women can hold a variety of diverse policy interests and goals.
For Bill Clinton an opposite trend may develop over the course of the campaign. As he engages in more partisan attacks on Trump and the GOP ticket his negatives should rise even further as Republican voters start to associate him even more strongly with the views of Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Bill Clinton's missteps during the Democratic presidential campaign are a reminder that his campaign skills are not what they once were and that he can often serve as a distraction from the core message that Hillary Clinton wants to communicate to the public.
One thing is clear, as the 2016 presidential election continues to unfold public reactions to these history making spouses will be one of the most intriguing aspects of this campaign. It is already shaping up to be a very nasty campaign that will focus on the negative attributes of each candidate and for better or worse it does not appear that their spouses will be able to remain above the fray whether they like it or not.