Politics in Practice

Insights from our authors

Understanding Public Opinion towards First Lady Melania Trump

Laurel Elder (Professor of Political Science at Hartwick College, USA), Brian Frederick (Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at Bridgewater State University, USA), and Barbara Burrell (Professor Emerita of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, USA) are the authors of American Presidential Candidate Spouses: A Public’s Perspective (2018). 

Read chapter 5, "Breaking with the Past: Public Opinion Toward Melania Trump and Bill Clinton in the 2016 Election" free until July 31.

As news reports about President Donald Trump’s affairs with porn star Stormy Daniels and former playboy model Karen McDougal and the legal fallout that has resulted from them continue to dominate the headlines, members of the news media have begun asking what it all means for his wife, Melania Trump.

In February 2018, a Marist College poll asked Americans “Thinking about Donald Trump’s reported relationship with porn star Stormy Daniels, what do you think Melania Trump should do?”  According to the survey results, 34 percent of Americans believe she should leave Donald Trump while 43 percent think she should stay and work it out. Melania Trump has kept a “steely silence” on these issues, while her spokeswoman has commented that she is “focused on being a mom”.

Political pundits have started weighing in as well. For example, cable news host and conservative commentator S.E. Cupp voiced her thoughts on the matter, openly encouraging Melania Trump to “leave her jerk of a husband” President Donald Trump based on his past affairs.

How might all these controversies engulfing the Trump Administration influence the public’s response to First Lady Melania Trump? Our book American Presidential Candidate Spouses: The Public’s Perspective, recently published by Palgrave, offers meaningful insights into how American citizens view Mrs. Trump and her predecessors.

During the course of the 2016 presidential campaign Melania Trump held the distinction of being the least well-liked presidential candidate spouse over the past three decades. She is the only presidential candidate spouse in modern times that more people disliked than liked.

Surprisingly, analyses in our book show that her low approval ratings were not the product of the unprecedented degree of party polarization that characterized the 2016 election or the simple projection of disapproval for her husband onto her.

Rather it was Melania Trump’s near invisibility on the campaign trail that drove her low ratings.  Polling data collected exclusively for our book reveals that close to 70 percent of Americans think it is important that presidential candidate spouses are active and visible on the campaign trail on behalf of their spouses.  Melania Trump simply did not fulfill this expectation during the 2016 election season.

Since assuming the position of First Lady, the public has clearly warmed towards Melania Trump. Polling data from CNN, which has done the most consistent tracking of public attitudes towards her over the past two years, shows that favorable views of Melania Trump increased from 36 percent in early January 2017, to a fairly steady rating in the mid to upper 40s throughout the rest of 2017.

CNN’s most recent poll, conducted in mid-January 2018, shows that her favorable ratings are now 47 percent compared to unfavorable ratings of 37 percent. Although these numbers indicate Melania Trump is more popular than her husband, she remains significantly less popular than her predecessors Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.

While her overall public standing in the minds of the public remains mixed, the uptick in Melania Trump’s approval ratings since the 2016 presidential campaign are attributable to several systematic factors we highlight in our book.

First, Americans are quite favorable towards presidential spouses that assume traditional roles.  For example, the most popular First Lady in modern times has been Barbara Bush followed by her daughter in law Laura Bush. In contrast, Hillary Clinton was appointed to head the presidential taskforce on health care reform during her husband’s administration, which severely depressed her favorability ratings during her first term as First Lady.

By having no visible involvement in policy making and conveying no desire to advise her husband on politics, while also carrying out the ceremonial roles of the Office of the First Lady—from greeting foreign dignitaries to hosting the Easter Egg RollMelania Trump has been able to generate a more positive evaluation from the public. Indeed, in the latest CNN poll, even 23 percent of Democrats indicated that they had a favorable view of Melania Trump, which is much higher than the percent of Democrats viewing her husband favorably. 

Additionally, Melania Trump may be the beneficiary of a public who understands she did not seek the spotlight that now falls upon her. Original survey data we collected for the book indicate that at least some Americans hold a reserve of warmth for First Ladies regardless of party, given that they have not chosen the public spotlight but are placed there by their ambitions of their spouses. While the public has not been queried on their views of Melania Trump since the Stormy Daniels scandal broke in February, it is quite possible that this scandal may cultivate even greater public sympathy for Melania.

Another explanation for Melania Trump’s increase in popularity stems from the concept of “incumbency advantage.”  Similar to the benefits that elected officials enjoy in their capacity as incumbents, sitting First Ladies tend to exploit the visibility and perquisites of the office to help boost their popularity during the course of their first terms. By clearly removing herself from political influence and signaling that she seeks to use the position of First Lady to help children, a traditionally acceptable role for presidential spouses, Melania has been able to improve her image in eyes of the public. Several previous First Ladies including Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama also experienced gains in their favorability ratings during their first terms in office.

That said, our book also makes it clear that the public now expects First Ladies to be active as well as traditional. Since becoming First Lady, Melania Trump has given far fewer speeches than previous First Ladies have. Unlike Michelle Obama, who was hard at work on the White House Garden just months after her husband became President, Melania Trump has yet to identify a signature issue. And while the traditional aspects of her performance have been well-received, Melania’s low profile approach to being a presidential spouse constrain her approval ratings and help explain why her favorability ratings remain significantly below what Michelle Obama’s were at this stage of her first term as First Lady.

In the end, Melania Trump’s low profile role may create greater space for future presidential spouses to opt out of the unpaid responsibilities previously assumed by First Ladies, but in the near future it is likely to keep her approval rating from increasing any higher. She may have risen above the low levels of popularity plaguing President Trump and other members of his administration but it is unlikely she can approach the heights achieved by other recent First Ladies like Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. 

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