What Do Voters Want From a Modern Presidential Spouse: Policy, the Personal Touch or a Bit of Both?

Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz, presidential spouses

Myrtle Spry & Heidi Cruz. Photo Credit Mary C. Curtis

In an era of non-traditional presidential spouses, what’s the best way for a wife – or husband – to warm up a crowd for the candidate he or she is married to? Heidi Cruz is trying to figure how to be a modern candidate’s spouse in some of the important, and more traditional, “red states.”

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Every campaign is different. There are 17 candidates in the race. I know how we’re running our race, which is, Ted is the candidate; I’m not. I am fully supportive of everything that he stands for,” said Heidi Cruz. But is she also trying to show a softer side of the Texas senator? “We each have our own individual personalities,” Cruz told me recently. “My role is to help him win.”

Actually, Heidi Cruz was being modest, about her speech and about the role of a modern political spouse.

At a recent breakfast gathering, sponsored by Lake Norman Conservatives, of about 60 Republican activists, party officials and a few so-far-undecided voters, Cruz mixed policy and the personal in her remarks and the question-and-answer session that followed. Though it may be early in the presidential season, this informal meeting in the largest city in the battleground state of North Carolina, which sits next door to the first-in-the-South primary state of South Carolina definitely counts.

Spouses can make a real difference. In the case of Michelle Obama, many African-American women who knew little about Barack Obama so liked the substance and style of his also Harvard Law-educated wife that they learned more about the then-senator and eventually become some of the president’s most enthusiastic supporters.

At the Cruz event, Lisa Todd of Salisbury, N.C., put it this way: “Choice of spouse shows the most important choice a candidate makes. If Ted chose her, he’s all right by me.”

Heidi Cruz, with an accomplished political and business background, including an MBA from Harvard and a top position at Goldman Sachs, talked about the campaign as “a movement” that is “grounded in our faith,” which resonated with the Charlotte audience and the evangelicals the Cruz campaign is courting. While she said she would leave the specifics to the man trying to become the Republican presidential nominee, she covered many of his issues, from support of the Second Amendment to opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. She did all this while weaving in personal facts about her “even-tempered” movie-buff husband who can quote lines from films, and anecdotes about their family life with two daughters. She also talked about her own background, accompanying her parents on mission trips to Africa when she was a child.

Then she leaned in for a photo with Myrtle Spry, the 97-year-old World War II veteran Cruz said inspired her. “I think she is needed,” said Spry, of Concord, N.C., a North Carolina co-chair of Cruz for President. With credentials that match her husband’s — they met when working on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign – Heidi Cruz was comfortable, as expected, in front of the crowd. Though it was a speech she must have given many times and will probably give a variation of on plenty of future occasions, it sounded fresh. And if her husband is to break away from the crush of candidates vying for the GOP 2016 nomination, her efforts could be a key to his success.

She is certainly crucial to his campaign fund-raising, as CNN reported in a story that noted her political and business skills.

But have gender and social norms in America caught up with the roles political wives are playing? What do Americans want from a presidential spouse and have those expectations changed with the times?

Michelle Obama would not agree with Heidi Cruz on very much of anything when it comes to policy, but she could give advice to all those who choose to walk that tightrope. As soon as she became a public figure, strangers viewed her through their own personal and often partisan lens. Even political friends have questioned her self-described role as “mom-in-chief” as though that wastes her educational and career accomplishments. (Though you can be sure any sign that she was not a fully attentive mother would have brought even harsher criticism.) She has survived to become a first lady whose popularity numbers outpace her husband’s.

First spouses are not elected, yet they sign up to represent the country. The president, the spouse and children are the first family. These days, it’s expected that the accomplished figure standing beside the president (male or female) will comment on more than just White House table settings and the art on the walls. They will inevitably be asked about more than their own special issues – entrepreneurship and education in Heidi Cruz’s case.

As usual, the country is changing faster than the models many are used to. In the 2016 race, if successful, either Carly Fiorina on the Republican side or Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton could mean changes in the literal image and expectation of first spouse. (Of course, in the case of Clinton’s spouse, Bill, even new rules might have to be rewritten.) In the 1964 movie Kisses for My President, Polly Bergen and Fred MacMurray played that scenario for gender-stereotypical laughs and is pretty much unwatchable today, except as an historical artifact.

Still, it takes finesse to define a role that is so unclear – at once central and supportive, sharing the spotlight without stealing it. Plus, don’t forget to smile!

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, as a national correspondent for Politics Daily and was a contributor to The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter.

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