Candidate wives: Spouses as strategic surrogates on the presidential campaign trail

Abigaile Marguerite VanHorn, Purdue University


This research project investigates the roles that candidate spouses play on the presidential campaign trail. The presidential candidate’s wife is one of the most important and frequently deployed surrogates. Her marital relationship affords her close proximity to the man who will potentially be the most powerful individual in American government. The public views her as an extension of the candidate and as evidence of his character and image. An effective spousal surrogate will speak to her husband’s character. A successful spousal surrogate will use her own image to build her husband’s image by lauding the attributes valued by voters who rely on cognitive shortcuts on election day. The candidate wife serves as an effective spousal surrogate by speaking to her husband’s authenticity as a human being and as a candidate. By providing evidence of his authenticity, she may be offering his candidacy the unspoken and intangible elements that bolster his image and supercede the character flaws or policy issues that are frequently debated in campaigns. I develop a model of spousal surrogacy using content analysis of party convention speeches from 1940 through 2008, popular television and magazine interviews from 1992 through 2008, and travel schedules from the 2008 election campaign. Data show that presidential candidates’ wives play a strategic role in building candidate image and mobilizing voters while campaigning for their husbands. Spousal campaign activity supports my model of spousal surrogacy that describes how and why candidate wives play specific roles on the campaign trail. While representing her husband, the candidate wife plays multiple roles as the traditional political wife and the political surrogate and advocate. Overtime, I find that candidate wives have taken on an increasingly important and prominent role in campaigning. They make more speeches, give more interviews and discuss a wider array of topics now than past elections. This increased political activity is tempered by the finding that most spousal political-oriented talk remains restricted to issues within a traditionally feminine sphere of influence. This project helps meet the need for systematic research of candidate spouses. It also contributes to a more complete understanding of American presidential election campaigns. Future studies should examine the campaign activity of spouses at other governmental levels to explain the roles of both female and male candidate spouses. Additional research should also examine other facets of spousal campaign involvement to determine if remnants of a separate spheres ideology extend into future campaign environments.




Clawson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Political science

Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server