As Stephen Harper prepared for the first set of election debates, his wife Laureen was hitting the campaign trail.
She visited the riding offices of Conservative candidates in suburban Toronto, speaking to supporters and mingling with people there. According to news reports, Mississauga-Lakeshore candidate Stella Ambler has called her Harper’s “secret weapon” – but what kind of impact can a politician’s spouse actually have on the campaign?
“The number one thing that any campaign will tell you is important is making face-to-face contact with people,” said Tim Abray, a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at Queen’s University’s department of political studies.
And the next best thing to meeting Stephen Harper himself, according to Abray, is meeting Laureen. “You can see it in your own life, when you’re introduced to someone and they’re either the spouse or a friend of a friend, you’re more likely to remember them and you’re probably more likely to give them a good hearing.”
He expects that Laureen Harper will be mostly attending events where a lot of longtime Conservative supporters will be present, and she can meet and greet the attendees face-to-face. “It’s simply a way of making contact with those people and encouraging their participation and making them feel that their contributions are being noticed and are welcome and are important.”
And it’s not just face-to-face contact – having the family visible during the campaign can have a “humanizing effect” on the candidate, he said. “Knowing that someone has family and knowing that someone has confidantes, knowing that someone has people who are trusted by them and are trusted in return, creates a bit of a bridge. You’re far more likely to be open to the things that someone is going to say or open to their ideas if you like someone that they also like. It’s a very, very basic human social function.”
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But taking lots of pictures on campaign with your family doesn’t work for everyone – particularly women.
“If women don’t have kids, they’re somehow abnormal,” said Melanee Thomas, assistant professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “And then if they do, the question’s always, ‘Well who’s looking after the kids?’”
Thomas recently completed a study, currently under peer review, of how politicians publicly present their families. She started by analyzing MPs’ websites. She found that not a single female MP who had children under 18 included a photo of their kids on their website. Many male MPs did.
“We talk about this in terms of political communication and marketing and branding. And so for men, it’s like an easy way to cue, ‘This is who I am. Look at me, I’m a ‘normal’, ‘heterosexual’, all around great awesome family guy,’” said Thomas.
“With an image like that you can communicate a whole lot about someone,” she said. “You just need to look at the picture and be like yes, we’re on the same team, we share the same values so on and so forth. And then that locks up a certain kind of base of support.”
In interviews with MPs, she found that some women made a conscious decision to not discuss their children out of safety concerns which none of their male colleagues mentioned. The women even reported uncomfortable encounters when attending events with their spouses.
“When women were around with their spouses at some events, they would often get jokes around, ‘Oh your husband’s so good-looking. You might not want to stay away in Ottawa for too long because someone might steal him away.’”
None of the men the researchers interviewed told similar stories, she said.
“When we talk about it in terms of political spouses, what came out very clearly is that for MPs who are men, their broad perception is that their spouse is there to help them, to quote them, ‘in the business of being an MP.’ So the political wife is seen as the home front part of the tag team.”
And although she thinks that some politicians use their spouses as a tool for strategic gain during a campaign, some just genuinely want voters to meet their families. “The less cynical response would be that I think some people in politics do genuinely want to communicate to people who would be voting for them who they are, and family is a large part of that.”
A “really good” campaigner
Sometimes, politicians’ spouses can be a real asset to the team. Laureen Harper is a “really good” campaigner, said Laura Peck, vice-president of media consulting company McLoughlin Media and a teacher at Carleton University’s School of Political Management. “She is truly an extrovert, gregarious, has lots of fun and friends and does lots of outdoor activities and that sort of thing.” She loves people, said Peck, people like to see her, and she offers a contrast to Harper’s more introverted public image.
And if the spouse loves campaigning, they should join in, she said. “Sometimes you have a family and they don’t want to be involved. That’s fine. But if you want to be with your spouse, if you want to have some family time, if you find the campaign trail fun, go for it.”
Just don’t expect a free ride, said Christopher Waddell, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. “I think once (Laureen Harper) is out on the campaign trail, she should be treated the same as any other candidate, I would argue.”
“She’s out there being public and advocating for her husband. If a business person was out doing that, you would want to be able to ask the business person questions, and I think his wife should be the same.”
It’s no reason to pry into the family’s private life, he said, but she should expect questions about anything she says at a public event.
“She’s up speaking for a reason. She’s up advocating on behalf of her husband. And the party is putting her out there because the party believes that she may be able to encourage or persuade people to vote for Mr. Harper or vote for the Conservatives. So if they’re prepared to do that, I don’t think she should be getting a free ride in the media in terms of not being open to scrutiny, not open to coverage, anything like that.”