First Ladies: Campaign Trailblazers
How presidential spouses evolved into highly sophisticated and effective election surrogates.
Last June, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden set out on the first of many campaign fundraising stops, telling a small yet influential audience in Manhattan that Joe Biden “knows how to get things done.”
Some scholars believe that it is, in fact, Jill Biden who knows how to get things done, especially when it comes to drumming up support for her husband in what is shaping up to be a contentious and momentous presidential campaign. But Jill Biden isn’t alone. Many first ladies have been valuable assets on the campaign trail.
“First ladies multiply the impact of the campaign message because they’re supporting the brand of the presidential candidate,” says Elizabeth J. Natalle, associate professor emeritus in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “First ladies often poll higher than their husbands. What that does is keep people liking the presidency in spite of the fact that they may or may not appreciate the policies or some of the things going on with the president.”
The week she kicked off her campaigning, Jill Biden also went to San Francisco and Los Angeles, echoing this message she established in Manhattan:
“Tell them to be optimistic, because I am, so let's finish the job,” the first lady said, according to Reuters, which was at the Manhattan event. Since then, Jill Biden has crisscrossed the country advocating for her own initiatives while touting the accomplishments of her husband’s administration.
In November the first lady spoke to a crowd in Pittsburgh, where she addressed the gains that region has had since the Biden economic policies took hold in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and as part of the administration’s Investing in America agenda.
“Businesses are growing. Jobs are coming back. Unemployment is at a record low. Buildings are going up. And young people are on the path to incredible careers,” Jill Biden said.
The first lady’s efforts in the Biden re-election campaign, says Natalle, align with what is expected from modern first ladies. They hit the campaign trail early and often, mixing private functions with public appearances.
“Jill Biden was in Seattle and she made a visit to a Cancer Institute, and then she went to a very expensive private campaign dinner with a lot of big money in Seattle,” Natalle, author of Jacqueline Kennedy and the Architecture of First Lady Diplomacy, notes. “So she combined what appeared to be a first lady’s trip for her own causes with the behind-the-scenes kind of campaigning.”
Natalle adds that Jill Biden’s surrogate campaigning has also effectively deflected negative public perceptions surrounding her husband’s age and Hunter Biden’s legal issues. The first lady responds to that criticism by being a very energetic, positive person, Natalle says, and then she takes the pulse of the nation and advises the president on what she is hearing.
Is it working?
“I think she’s doing very well,” Natalle says. “That whole slogan of ‘let’s finish the job’ is what Jill is out there telling people at these campaign events.”
From the front porch to front and center
Some of the most notable campaign moments for the spouses of presidents date back to front porch “events” in the late 1800s with first ladies including Ida McKinley (1897–1901), Carolyn Harrison (1832–1892) and Frances Cleveland (1886–1897), according to Natalle.
“Literally they are on the front porch of their homes with their husbands as voters come by and people get to talk to them,” Natalle says. “It’s a very folksy way of doing things.”
Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony describes in an article for the National First Ladies Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, the savvy social abilities of two early First Ladies—Dolley Madison (1809–1817) and Louisa Adams (1825–1829). Dolley Madison was famously known for her hostess skills and her ability to curry favor with members of the Senate and House to incline them to support her husband’s presidential candidacy in 1808, according to Anthony. His opponent, DeWitt Clinton, later declared that he had been defeated largely by “Mrs. Madison.”
Louisa Adams, Anthony says, took social politicking one step further. At the end of 1823, she held a crowded reception seemingly in commemoration of General Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Anthony describes it as a clever move of “strategic flattery,” since Jackson had intended to run against her husband months later in the presidential election of 1824.
Later, former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (1861 until the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), according to Anthony, made no apologies for what reporters at the time believed was her role as a campaign adviser to her husband. And upon Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, Anthony notes how Lincoln yelled out to her, “We are elected!”
In 1956, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower became the first presidential spouse to ever appear in a television ad that encouraged women to vote because “they will probably decide the election this time.”
Eight years later, the spotlight was on First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, who traveled 1,682 miles from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans over four days on a 19-car train dubbed The Lady Bird Special. Known as the first presidential spouse to independently campaign on her husband’s behalf, Lady Bird Johnson made speeches from the caboose telling people why they should vote Democratic. The trip, according to analysis in the National Endowment for the Humanities, caused safety concerns because the South was hostile territory for Democrats advocating for civil rights, as the administration of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was doing.
“First ladies have always pushed the boundaries, including on the campaign trail,” says Lauren Wright, associate research scholar and lecturer at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
The power of presence
Perhaps nothing could be more reflective of the influence first ladies have on their husbands’ presidential candidacies than a remarkable moment in August 1972. It was the opening night of the Republican National Convention, televised from Miami, where former First Lady Pat Nixon was introduced by actor Jimmy Stewart. As she approached the podium, she received a thunderous, standing ovation that lasted for more than five minutes, according to the Richard Nixon Foundation. Wearing a light blue dress, Pat Nixon smiled. She waved and nodded in appreciation to the hundreds of people on their feet, some of whom were holding handmade signs saying “Pat For First Lady.”
The film footage captures the somewhat awkward moments of the former first lady trying to quell the crowd. She reaches for the oversized gavel and gives it a couple swings. She says “thank you,” but as the music from the live band quiets in anticipation of her words, the crowd chants louder.
At one point, California governor and future president Ronald Reagan, dressed in a white suit and dark tie, enters the frame. He too, takes several swings of the gavel and then approaches the mic, “Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady!”
She tries again to thank the crowd to another round of chants: “Four more years! Four more years!” Pat Nixon turns away from the microphone but can be heard saying, “I don’t know what to do.” Reagan returns to the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen…”
Pat Nixon laughs nervously.
“Here she is,” Reagan announces for the second time, and after more chanting from the crowd, she says, “I can certainly say this is the most wonderful welcome I have ever had.”
The former first lady tries to utter a sentence about Nixon supporters having young people and before she could finish the crowd, again, goes wild. Pat Nixon, walks back to Ronald Reagan’s side, grasps his hand, exchanges a few words to which he responds while smiling. Back at the podium again, Pat Nixon starts again.
“I can certainly say this is the most wonderful welcome I have ever had,” she says and the crowd roars back.
That raucous moment, according to Natalle, was another turning point for first ladies and their influence on presidential campaigns.
“It’s the beginning of what is celebrity status for first ladies on television,” Natalle tells East Wing Magazine in a Zoom interview. “It’s the beginning of the evolution of what are now the most, in some ways, incredibly produced appearances by first ladies at Republican and Democratic national conventions.”
Furthermore, Natalle says Pat Nixon’s appearance marked the beginning of what is now a very sophisticated political process.
First ladies and modern media
By 2012, first ladies were expected to be seen supporting their spouses’ candidacy. Another pivotal moment was former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Democratic Convention speech that year advocating for the re-election of her husband, Barack Obama. According to Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, her convention speech garnered a million-plus more views online than her husband’s.
“It’s pretty extraordinary the volume of viewership Michelle Obama was able to garner and the kind of spotlight she placed on that campaign,” Wright tells East Wing Magazine in a phone interview.
In addition to being surrogates on the campaign trail, first ladies have proven to be extraordinary fundraisers. Former First Lady Laura Bush was especially effective in 2006. It was reported at the time that Laura Bush was “handling most of the fundraising responsibilities.” In that election cycle, according to CNN, Bush raised more than $10 million for Republican candidates and party committees.
In today’s hyper-polarized political climate, Wright says, a first lady has become an asset in geographical areas where her husband is unpopular. First ladies have been tasked with speaking to groups that might not be obvious choices for rallies perhaps because of their softer, less direct touch.
“[First ladies] are more recognizable than vice presidents every time we have measured it.” — Lauren Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today,
“[First ladies] allow campaigns to be in more than one place at once,” Wright says, adding that they also have attributes, such as name recognition, that make them particularly effective surrogates. “[First ladies] are more recognizable than vice presidents every time we have measured it.”
First ladies also have the ear of the president. Unlike another surrogate, a first lady can, according to Wright, legitimately say, “‘I just spoke to [the president] 20 minutes ago and this is what he said.’ A secretary of state can’t do that, a vice president can’t do that. They also get to talk about the human qualities of the candidate—why you should trust this person and why this is the person [she] chose to spend [her] life with.”
Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush, were undeniably popular, according to researchers in a 2010 study. Barbara Bush in the 1992 campaign season carried a 76% favorability rating; alternatively, Laura Bush in 2000 showed the lowest unfavorable ratings over the course of the campaign season, an average of 8% (the lowest unfavorable ratings tracked in the study from 1992–2008). By 2004, Laura Bush’s adjusted favorability rating averaged 65%. Researchers make note of this because it contrasts with the significantly lower favorability rating at the time of her husband, George W. Bush.
Both Bush first ladies, according to Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush, embraced a more traditional first lady role that served the campaigns well. “They are both women who are very true to themselves,” McBride tells East Wing Magazine, adding that [Laura Bush] used her traditional background in a way that was very softening and effective while also showing she had a mind and an agenda of her own.
Despite Donald Trump’s continued legal troubles, the former president and current candidate continues to be a force in the GOP. Yet former First Lady Melania Trump remains absent from the campaign trail with the exception of an appearance she made at a recent National Archives naturalization ceremony. Experts not only think her absence is wise but also strategically brilliant for the campaign.
“I think the impact [of her absence] is that it actually preserves her ethos among voters because she has distanced herself from her husband’s transgressions,” Natalle says. “She comes in clean. She’s not guilty by association because she hasn’t been out there talking.”
What Natalle describes as communication apprehension might also contribute to her absence on the campaign trail.
“Many people rate public speaking right up there with paying taxes, going to the dentist and dying as their big fears,” she says, noting that English is not Melania Trump’s first language. “I have watched Melania Trump since the beginning of the first campaign. She genuinely has some difficulty with public speaking because she is unsure of herself as a speaker.”
Wright, an associate research scholar at Princeton University, noted that Melania Trump made eight speeches in 2017, her husband’s first year as president. In contrast, Michelle Obama made 74 speeches and Laura Bush 42 during their husbands’ first year in office, writes author Mary Jordan in her book Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump.
However, if Donald Trump is nominated as the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, she’ll have to step into the campaign, Natalle says.
“I think she is holding back while the fire is burning right now,” Natalle says. “We’re all waiting to see how this fire burns between now and the Republican National Convention.”
Still, Melania Trump’s legacy might be that spouses of future presidents feel less bound by tradition and public expectations, according to McBride.
“[Melania Trump] really relieved a burden for any future occupant, male or female, that they do not have to feel compelled to follow the way that we were, as Americans, used to seeing things done,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush.
“[Melania Trump] really relieved a burden for any future occupant, male or female, that they do not have to feel compelled to follow the way that we were, as Americans, used to seeing things done,” says McBride, who serves on the board of directors of the White House Historical Association, in Art of Her Deal.
As far as the 2024 presidential election is concerned, it’s too soon to tell how impactful first ladies will be on the outcome, given fast-evolving world events, says Natalle.
“Jill Biden has got to counter the image of Joe Biden as too old to be president. And Melania Trump is going to have to come out to the public,” Natalle says. “After that, it’s very hard to predict because I think our government is going to be at the mercy of these larger events beyond the United States.”
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