While 24 Democrats are currently campaigning to be the United States’ 46th president, six men are campaigning for an even more rarefied title — the nation’s first-ever first man.
With half a dozen female candidates for president, plus a gay male candidate, the role of candidate’s husband, once a novelty, is now so common that the various husbands have run into each other over and over again as they crisscross early primary states while barnstorming for their wives.
The candidate’s husband is now a source of heartwarming made-for-Twitter moments, of stump speech jokes, of rally chants.
He’s also an enigma for political strategists.
“People assume in any male-female partnership, the male partner is dominant,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor who studies female candidates. “When you have a woman running for governor or president, presenting herself as dominant in whatever situation she’s in, including this partnership — do voters accept it? Or do they say, ‘Oh, that’s so weird?’”
Dittmar surmised that in the appearance-is-everything world of a presidential campaign, some strategists might not want to risk having a man onstage alongside his wife too often, lest voters start thinking the man is the powerful one on that stage. “What they would do with a female candidate is say, ‘You know what, Mr. Warren — I forget what his last name is! — you don’t need to play a big role …. It may be more risky to put you out there than it would to put a female spouse,’” Dittmar said. “If you’re a strategist, you may say, ‘Let’s not risk it.’”
Bruce Mann, the Harvard Law School professor married to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has indeed kept a low profile, saying no to interview requests and generally accompanying Warren to events but not headlining his own campaign stops. Still, he has managed to become a crowd favorite. Fans chant when they see him at Warren’s speeches: “Bruce Mann, First Man!”
Of the five men whose wives are running for president (only Marianne Williamson, among the six female Democratic candidates, is currently unmarried), all have much lower profiles than their wives — and certainly are much less recognizable than the last would-be first man, Bill Clinton, who would always be far better known as a former president.
Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has carved out the most prominent role of any spouse — male or female — in the field, with the possible exception of former second lady Jill Biden.
Amanda Hunter, the research director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports female candidates, noted that Buttigieg — the only spouse who doesn’t have to worry about the traditional gender dynamic of a man upstaging a woman — has given many more solo speeches than the women’s husbands. Buttigieg also enthusiastically talks to the press, and is a deft user of Twitter to connect to voters daily.
Among the male spouses of the female candidates, Douglas Emhoff — otherwise known as Mr. Kamala Harris — has been the most visible. He’s the only woman’s spouse to have a public Twitter account, from which he tweets adoringly about his wife. He has also gone solo to campaign events, where he stumps for Harris on larger stages than the other women’s husbands have tended to choose.
Abraham Williams, the filmmaker husband of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, stays behind the scenes but keeps close to the action in his wife’s campaign — using his professional expertise as her campaign videographer.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the only female candidate with school-aged children at home. Her husband, a British-American businessman, has stayed so much under the radar that a Twitter search for “Jonathan Gillibrand” yields men named Jonathan talking about Kirsten, rather than any tweets about the potential East Wing occupant.
And John Bessler, the law professor spouse of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has spoken on his wife’s behalf at numerous small events, such as meetings of county Democratic groups in Iowa. “There’s some advantage, at some point, in dividing up, because you can cover more ground that way,” he said. His wife’s staff in Iowa and New Hampshire tell him when they spot an event he might want to attend.
No one trained him, he said, on how to give a presidential stump speech. But his speech sounds a lot like his wife’s.
“The message I deliver at those events is that a Vanderbilt study showed Amy was the most effective Democratic senator. They looked at 15 metrics,” he says, launching eagerly into a list of memorized facts and figures.
He’s reluctant to get personal. Asked in a Washington Post interview what he saw in Klobuchar that made him know she would make a great candidate before the rest of the world saw it, he answers matter-of-factly, “She works really hard” and “she’s able to juggle a lot.” Then he turns to quoting his wife again. “One of the things she’s been saying on the campaign trail — she thinks of herself as a proven progressive. If you don’t make progress, you’re not really being a progressive,” he says.
Mann declined to comment for this article through a campaign staffer, and the Gabbard, Gillibrand and Harris campaigns did not respond to inquiries about the respective husbands.
These husbands have a tricky job in boosting their wife’s credentials instead of inadvertently weakening them, Hunter said. “All of their wives are navigating a completely different playing field in terms of the criticism women get when running for executive office. Men are assumed to be qualified. Women have to prove it over and over,” she said.
Bessler talked about his role behind the scenes: Sometimes he’ll suggest a tweet to Klobuchar, he said, but she doesn’t always take him up on his ideas. A lawyer who left his Twin Cities law firm after his wife was elected so he could follow her to Washington and now a professor in the D.C. area, Bessler sometimes does research for Klobuchar on subjects that interest him, including human rights and antitrust law. He prepares briefings to help her on the trail.
He's used to this — Klobuchar first looked into running for office in 1994, just a year after the couple married, and ran and won in her first election four years later. “I knew she was always interested in politics. I never knew it would rise to this level,” he said. But he saw the writing on the wall when he walked parade routes with her during her 2018 reelection campaign for Senate, and heard the shouts, “Run for president!”
But while he heard the calls, he wasn’t the one answering them. Bessler talks about his wife’s decision to run as a conclusion she reached on her own, not a family decision.
He is aware that he could hold a historic role if she wins. In thinking about what he would do as first man, he has dreamed up an idea along the lines of first ladies’ typical initiatives — a writing program to improve schoolchildren’s communication skills.
Chasten Buttigieg, too, has joked about picking out the White House china.
Some things might not change.
But in some ways, men on the campaign trail are already changing the image of what a campaign husband looks like.
“They gush about their love for their spouses. Chasten is gushing about Pete. Doug is constantly gushing about how much he loves and admires and values Sen. Harris,” said Martha McKenna, a political consultant who has worked in the past for Harris and Buttigieg.
Perhaps that sounds obvious for a spouse. But McKenna thinks it’s moving to female voters, especially those who have felt bedraggled by the Trump administration’s approach to women’s rights. “Sometimes we live in a world where we don’t have many role models of men being comfortable with how much they love their wives who play important professional roles — not their wives who are moms, or their wives who are beautiful,” she said. “To me it’s very refreshing and remarkable. … If there were more husbands who felt comfortable doing what Chasten and Doug do, the world would be a better place. We need more hype men in our lives.”
It may or may not be a while before we have a first man in the White House, but we do have hype men on the trail. And that’s a novelty too.