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Polls and Elections: From Hillary to Michelle: Public Opinion and the Spouses of Presidential Candidates


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We thank Susan J. Carroll, Rutgers University, for her discussant comments on this project.

Barbara Burrell is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Political Science Department at Northern Illinois University, where she teaches courses in public opinion, political behavior, and women and politics.

Laurel Elder is an associate professor of political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Her recent work has been published in Social Science Quarterly, Politics & Gender, The Forum, and as a chapter in The Gender Gap: Voting and the Sexes.

Brian Frederick is an assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and the author of Congressional Representation and Constituents and articles in several journals.


This study analyzes public opinion data on would-be first ladies during the presidential campaign season from 1992 to 2008. By comparing attitudes toward would-be first ladies over the last five presidential cycles, we identify key areas of stability and change in Americans' attitudes toward these individuals. Additionally, survey data are used to explore how attitudes about these women differ across key demographics, to identify factors that shape the public's attitudes concerning presidential candidates' wives, and to explore the impact of these women on their husbands' favorability ratings. The results indicate that spouses who embody the traditional role of first lady tend to be more popular, while spouses who assume an active role in advocating policy, such as Hillary Clinton, garner less support. Most candidate spouses generate highly polarized reactions along partisan lines, although more traditional spouses evoke a less divisive response.