That idea—family as a proxy for stability, responsibility and commitment to the nation—persists today. That’s why nearly every candidate, for everything from school committee up to the highest office in the land, produces the same kind of campaign artifacts: the mailer with the happy family photo, the introductory TV ad with the family testimonials. The format has lately been weaponized: Last summer, Rich Madaleno, a gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, released an ad in which he smooched his husband on the lips, then turned back to the camera and said, “Take that, Trump.”
Recent history suggests that the American public might actually care more about the existence of a spouse than about whether the marriage is a good one. We know now that plenty of presidential unions—not just the Trumps’ and Clintons’, but the Kennedys’, the Roosevelts’, the Johnsons’—have been less than perfect. In the latter three cases, the trouble wasn’t widely known at the time. But even though Bill Clinton’s infidelities were spread across front pages, the salacious news didn’t cut into his support during his presidential campaigns. Similarly, Donald Trump’s alleged infidelity hasn’t noticeably hurt him at the polls.
It could be that, at least for a politician’s loyal base, those marital highs and lows are relatable signs of humanity.