That, however, could be a challenge for two Republican hopefuls with messy marital histories.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is weighing a run, and his wife, Cheri, divorced in the early 1990s after she left him and their four children, ages 8 to 14. She married another man before divorcing again and remarrying Daniels a few years later.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who announced his candidacy last week, is married to his third wife, Callista, whom he started dating while still married to his second wife.
Cheri Daniels and Callista Gingrich are said to be reluctant to step into the pressure cooker of a presidential campaign — which could force them to discuss the past publicly.
Even at this early stage of the campaign, shaping the narrative of home life is part of the political calculation, said Nicolle Wallace, who served as a senior adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign and was an aide to President George W. Bush.
“The voters can tolerate messy and complicated, but they have very little patience for being lied to,” Wallace said. “They are not looking for June Cleaver.”
Polls show that, indeed, the public cares about a candidate’s family life.
Roughly half of voters said a candidate’s spouse would have some impact on their vote, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll just before the start of the 2008 presidential primaries. Voters are much more interested in the candidate’s personal qualities and positions on issues. But for one quarter of voters, the spouse carries significant weight, the poll showed.
“People want to like the spouse. They’ll have an attitude” about that person, said Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a specialist in U.S. women’s political history. “If they don’t like the spouse, that will color how they feel about the candidate.”
What is important to Mary Frieden, president of the Muscatine County Republican Women in Iowa, is whether a candidate has support at home. “I like to see the spouse visible and supportive, holding the same values as the candidate,” she said. “It matters to me in the sense of good, sound family values. Seeing a good family that is tight and cares for each other means a lot to me.”
The politicians eyeing 2012 are no doubt pondering how to turn their marital histories into a silver lining in the storm narrative. The often-quoted response from Mitch Daniels, who routinely declines to speak publicly about his marriage, came in a 2004 article in the Indianapolis Star: “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story,” he said.