America’s Enduring Fascination With Political Families

According to a corpus of recent search data, American voters don’t simply elect politicians. They elect husbands, wives, sons, and daughters.

The First Family poses for an official portrait in the Oval Office in December of 2011. (Pete Souza / The White House )

There is an argument that arises, presidential campaign after presidential campaign, in forms ranging from the sarcastic to the strident. It goes like this: Maybe the U.S. should have a prime minister. Maybe the U.S. should even have a king or queen. Maybe the presidency should be neatly bifurcated, the governmental duties on one side and the ceremonial on the other: a constitutional monarchy, basically, only without the crowns or the thrones or the subtle side-eye from the ghost of George Washington.

The argument recurs, chafing though it may against most Americans’ conception of what their country is all about, because it is grounded in a broad truth: Americans ask a lot of their leaders. The presidency, at this point—an office that has been celebritized through the decades by the workings of mass media—is at once martial and executive and administrative and ceremonial. It demands that the person who carries the nuclear codes be the same person who pardons the turkeys. Exercising international diplomacy, throwing dinners, waging war, making memes, delivering soaring speeches, indulging in small talk on The Late Show, inspiring us, amusing us, consoling us, keeping us safe: All of these fall under the presidency’s ever-expanding job description. That makes the job an all-consuming endeavor—and it means that, regardless of his (and now, potentially, her) gender, the president has come to function as a kind of national host. If the country is an imagined community, the president is the person charged with welcoming Americans, day after day, into the national family.

That is perhaps why Americans have been, historically, so interested in politicians’ own, decidedly non-imaginary, families. Google recently provided The Atlantic with a selection of search data: a corpus of the terms associated with various politicians, across presidential, Senate, and House races. The idea was to give a proximate sense, via U.S. searches related to each person’s candidacy, of what people wanted to know about their would-be leaders. And one of the most common trends, across candidates and campaign years—and also across genders—was the searchers’ consistent interest in candidates’ families. The Google corpus suggests the same thing those periodic proposals of American monarchy do: American voters don’t simply put people into office. They put families there.

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Let’s start with the 2016 presidential primary season (for Google-search purposes, the period of April of 2015 to March of 2016). The top 50 searches related to Marco Rubio include “marco rubio wife,” which came in as the fourth-most common related search. That was followed by “jeanette rubio” (16th) and “rubio wife” (32nd). Carly Fiorina’s related searches include “frank fiorina” (16th) and “carly fiorina husband” (27th). For Hillary Clinton, from January 2015 to the present, “bill clinton” has been the candidate’s 9th most common related search term—more popular than “hillary clinton vp,” “hillary clinton email,” and “hillary clinton benghazi.”

Those spouse-specific searches echo the dynamics of the 2012 presidential campaign, in which Mitt Romney’s 21st most common search term was “ann romney,” with “mitt romney wife” coming in as the 47th. And that, in turn, echoed the dynamics of 2008. In that campaign, with its long and hard-fought primary season, Joe Biden’s most common related search terms included “joe biden wife” (11th) and “jill biden” (31st). Michele Bachmann’s popular terms included “michele bachmann husband” (4th), “marcus bachman” (18th), and “bachmann husband” (37th). Sarah Palin’s included “sarah palin affair” (31st)—ostensibly the public’s expression of curiosity about this—and “todd palin” (30th).

Some of those searches, sure, might suggest simple prurience (“sarah palin affair”) on the part of the Americans who took to Google to convert curiosity into information. And there are reasons Bill’s name popped up in Hillary’s searches that have very little to do with voters’ attempts to assess the kind of president she would be. What’s most striking about the data, though, is the extent to which the spouse-related searches are made in relation to both men and women candidates. Rather than the regressive, if still common, framing of a woman’s achievements in terms of her husband—“good job, Carly, but what about Frank?”—the data suggest, overall, the public’s broader interest in candidates’ families, regardless of the candidates’ gender. So the searches in this case don’t necessarily suggest sexism. (Although “Hillary clinton nutcracker” is currently the Democratic nominee’s 35th-most common related-search term.) Rather, they suggest a culturally holistic notion of political leadership. It takes a village to lead a country.

The Google data further dispel the idea of straightforward gender bias when it comes to searches surrounding recent congressional races. On the one hand, “mia love husband” and “jason love” come in at the Utah representative’s 3rd and 5th most-common related searches, respectively, and “steve schultz” is the number-one related search term for Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But for many of those politicians’ fellow women, among them Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill and former Representative Gabby Giffords, their top 50 related searches feature no mention at all of husbands or spouses. (That is particularly surprising when it comes to Giffords, whose husband is the famous-in-his-own-right astronaut Mark Kelly. His absence among her searches could be attributed to people simply not realizing that they’re married—and, either way, that they have other things they want to know about her besides her marital status. Americans are not searching, in great numbers, for “gabby giffords husband.”)

Curiosity about “family,” in particular, was a cross-gender phenomenon in the Google searches. In 2008, “joe biden family” was the then-primary candidate’s 17th most common search term; “Marco rubio family” was, during the Florida senator’s 2016 presidential run, his 24th most common related term. And children, too, have been common causes for curiosity, for both women and men candidates. “Bristol palin” was Sarah Palin’s second-most-common related search in 2008; “trig palin” was the 23rd, “sarah palin daughter” was the 27th, and “palin daughter” was the 39th. In 2012, “mitt romney sons” was the GOP nominee’s 24th most common search term. And in 2016, “carly fiorina daughter” was the GOP primary contender’s 10th-most-common related search during her run. “Lori ann fiorina”—the candidate’s stepdaughter, who died of a drug overdose in 2009 after a long battle with addiction—was the 20th, and “carly fiorina children” was the 31st.

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Together, the data suggest what any political convention, and what a lot of political media coverage, will tend to take for granted: Politics is, whatever else it might be, a family game. That’s the reason candidates air TV ads that prominently highlight their loving husbands or wives or children. It’s the reason that Michelle Obama and Ivanka Trump stole the shows in Philadelphia and Cleveland last month. It’s the reason that executives at the state and national levels have come to office, carrying on a centuries-long tradition, with “first families” in tow. The New York Times recently mentioned, in an article about Bill Clinton’s plans for his potential foray into first gentlemanship, that the former president would not be engaging in activities like picking out White House china patterns and overseeing floral arrangements. Instead, the paper noted, some of those duties are “expected to fall to the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea.”

This, rightfully, provoked ire. (Perhaps the Clinton White House could make things easier on everyone and just get Colin Cowie on retainer.) And yet, in the context of the family impulse in American politics, the turn-to-Chelsea assumption made some sense. The White House is, on top of everything else, a home; the first families is expected to shoulder the burdens of making that home. It’s a duty that reflects the president’s role not just as a political leader, but as a cultural one. The current president recently wrote an impassioned defense of feminism in the pages of Glamour. His wife recently starred, with Missy Elliott, in a Carpool Karaoke segment. The Obama daughters make headlines for everything from yawning to wearing clothing to talking to Ryan Reynolds to getting a summer job at a seafood shack.

Which is another way of saying that Americans seem to sense the soft scent of royalty in first families—while never, of course, admitting to a taste for monarchy. Dynasties, familial intrigue, fodder for tabloids: Politicians can provide those things. Recent history would suggest that Americans want them to.

Take the Google search data for President Obama: the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, the man who makes decisions every day that directly affect the course of millions of human lives. Google’s most common related-search term for the president between January 2015 and today? “Malia obama.” The third most common, after “president obama”? “Sasha obama.” And then “michelle obama” (14th). And then “obama daughters” (16th). And then “malia obama college” (21st).

At the moment, the 49th most common search term related to the 44th president of the United States is “natasha obama,” his youngest daughters given name. So deep, apparently, is the American public’s interest in the first family that some industrious Google searchers use a name not even the Obamas employ.