The Michelle Obama Phenomenon, Explained

On Thursday afternoon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, an audience of more than 10,000 people screamed and waved as First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton approached the stage together for the first time at a campaign rally. The moment felt like history in the making. Annie Leibovitz snapped pictures of both women at the foot of the podium, “Rise Up,” by Andra Day blasted over the coliseum speakers, and in an extraordinary public gesture of respect and acknowledgement of power, Hillary Clinton took the microphone to introduce the headliner of her own campaign event: Michelle Obama.

There are a few reasons why Michelle Obama has emerged as Hillary Clinton’s chief campaigner. First, Michelle Obama has proven to be an effective surrogate by every available measure.

On one hand, Mrs. Obama possesses attributes that make all presidential and candidate spouses valuable campaign players. Spouses have consistently higher favorability and approval ratings than presidents and vice presidents, high name recognition, an ability to transcend the partisan frameworks voters use to evaluate most politicians, and more latitude to pursue alternative media like late night and scripted television, allowing spouses to evade the probing inquiries of journalists almost altogether. Like Laura Bush, Michelle Obama has been a formidable fundraiser for the Party, and like Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, she can garner support from Independent and out-party voters.

Some of Michelle Obama’s effectiveness, though, can be explained by traits that are specific to her. For example, her communication style is inclusive and warm. Mrs. Obama often shares stories about her own life or her kids, providing a counterbalance to President Obama’s stoic demeanor, and perhaps, an antidote to Hillary Clinton’s transparency problems. Unparalleled numbers of people tune into and engage with her public remarks, as the graphic below shows.

Data from Nielsen Insights. The convention speeches of candidate spouses (in black) sparked more activity on Twitter than the
Data from Nielsen Insights. The convention speeches of candidate spouses (in black) sparked more activity on Twitter than the speeches of other prominent surrogates such as Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. Michelle Obama’s speech generated the most activity.

But Michelle Obama’s ascendance to the highest rungs of the Clinton communications operation is also reflective of the campaign’s inclination to utilize every resource at its disposal while minimizing risks.

Presidential campaign events are fundamentally designed to inspire awe and induce emotion. But as I show in my new book, “On Behalf of the President,” some politicians are better than others at evoking these feelings. Michelle Obama is a gifted speaker who can exercise message control while appealing to a broad audience: the rare political equivalent of a triple-threat.

Hillary Clinton’s delegation of campaign messaging responsibilities to the most talented messengers in her circle like Michelle Obama is as shrewd a campaign move as it is a humble one, and it may be one of the reasons she is poised to succeed on November 8.

Would Donald Trump have the self-awareness and discipline required to share the spotlight to such an extent, if he had an ally capable of eliciting Justin Bieber-level excitement on his behalf? There is not much time left to find out, but Melania Trump’s highly anticipated campaign speech in Pennsylvania on Thursday is a step in the right direction.