By Debbie Siegelbaum - 12/06/11 01:17 AM EST
When Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was running for political office, his advisers told him it would be much better if he were romantically attached.
Richmond wasn’t willing to let politics enter into his romantic life, but politicians’ personal relationships have long been fodder for political campaigns and often face increasing scrutiny the higher the office they seek.
“Politicians use every asset they have, whether it’s John Kerry serving in Vietnam, whether it’s humble upbringing,” George Washington University public policy Professor William Adams said. “And their personal lives are no exception.”
Candidates routinely have their spouses or children stump for them on the campaign trail, but an unmarried politician faces a potential disadvantage in that area.
“At a certain point, it could be a lack of an asset,” Adams said.
Richmond sees the pluses of having a family life to show voters.
“I just think having the family responsibility would make you more attractive to people, that you understand what families go through,” he said. “The American people want to know that you understand how important it is, the family events and educating a kid and all of those things.”
But a growing number of citizens do not fall into that category themselves.
According to 2010 census data, more than 43 percent of all U.S. citizens 18 and older are unmarried. In the 2008 presidential election, 38 percent of voters were single.
And yet no credible unmarried candidates for the presidency appear. For Adams, the main explanation is that the pool of potential candidates is a small one.
“In a whole variety of ways, the presidential pool would not be a perfect reflection of the American public,” he said, citing marriage status and education as two examples. “Certainly at the presidential level, it’s hard to find people in the House and Senate who don’t fit that [nuclear family] mold … There are a few, but not many.”
Adams is right. According to data culled by The Hill on the 112th Congress, 87 percent of members are currently married.
Senate Historian Don Ritchie says the makeup of Congress does reflect the demography of America, but it’s certainly not proportional.
“As a whole, members of Congress tend to reflect [social trends], but it’s not like a perfect mirror; it’s a slightly distorted mirror,” he said. “If you count the number of people in each group, it won’t be exactly reflected in Congress.”
The reason for this, according to Ritchie: “[I]f a politician’s personal history is drastically different from the mean, the average of their constituency, then it would be used as a campaign issue against them.
“And character, of course, is a big issue — it always has been in politics,” he added. “Families are always a good campaign issue. You run a picture of yourself with your spouse and your children and your dog, and that always gets into the campaign along the way.”
Ritchie noted that James Buchanan was the last, and only, lifelong unmarried president. He was elected in 1856.
He added that a single candidate’s opponent could use marital status in campaign attacks.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) has experienced such shots on his single status in the past.
“Yeah, I definitely think it’s easier to make different accusations and innuendos against you,” he said.
“I think anything that makes you different or unique, people are going to draw attention to it,” Schock added. “Whether you’re a woman running, whether you’re young, whether you’re single, whether you’re divorced, whether you have a disabled child. Whatever thing they can talk about, that’s what makes for an interesting story.”
Schock acknowledged that while he thinks it will take some time before we see a credible unmarried presidential candidate, he’s hopeful that relationship status will be just one aspect of that person, and not a defining characteristic.
“I think what’s more important is the quality of the candidate,” he said. Barack Obama’s “not president because he’s African-American. He just by the voters was viewed to be more qualified, and happened to be African-American.
“I think it’s changing,” Schock said. “There’s now more women in office, there’s now more minorities in office, and if you classify single people as a demographic, now there are more single people who are getting elected,” he said, citing a number of unmarried congressmen, senators and governors.
Ritchie noted that in the earlier part of the century, the thought of even a divorced president was an impossibility. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 that the country had its first divorced (and remarried) head of state.
“For a long time, divorce was considered to be just a terrible thing, and they would hold it against a candidate,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s still a hurdle [today], because it’s much more common in society.”
One divorce is easily forgiven nowadays, but are multiple divorces just as much of a stumbling block to the White House as no marriages at all?
GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, now on his third marriage, has had to face the ghosts of his romantic past on the campaign trail.
“One divorce now seems to be palatable, but serial marriages, I think, still raise concerns with a non-trivial number of voters,” Adams said. “The social-conservative base considers monogamy a measure of character. And a series of divorces certainly raises questions in the minds of folks who might consider one mistake forgivable, but two more problematic.”
Schock noted that while conventional wisdom might dictate that Gingrich’s divorces would be a detriment, his high poll numbers indicate anything but.
“Based on Newt’s poll numbers right now, it appears that the primary voters — who I would argue, the most conservative in the election are Republican primary voters — it seems that while it may be an issue, it’s not the most important issue,” he said.
According to lawmakers and experts, all we need now is a viable unmarried presidential candidate to determine if the same will hold true for single status.
“The fact that the candidates we have on the horizon are married and usually have kids doesn’t mean that it would be an insurmountable barrier,” Adams said. “We don’t know, because we haven’t had a test of that … We need an articulate, appealing bachelor candidate to give it a shot.”
Richmond hopes that marriage and family are in his future. But he admitted that it would probably take some time before the country elects an unmarried commander in chief.
“I don’t see a single person having a realistic shot at the presidency,” he said. “I don’t think we’re ready for it yet. One day, we probably will be.”