Beyond policy positions and past record, there is one acutely personal aspect of any presidential candidate that America wants to understand: the spouse. "Increasingly, people want to know their candidates," says Stephen Hess, an expert on media and politics who worked in the White House under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. "It got started before reality TV got started, but it's of the same principle."
These days, politicians' spouses are often features of the campaign, a way for the nation to understand who the candidate is by looking at the person who is closest to them. But that wasn't always the case, explains Hess. "The real change, where they went from the type that sat there and smiled and laughed at their husband's jokes every day—same jokes, same smile—would've been Lady Bird Johnson," he says, adding that Johnson had her own schedule and her own entourage. "While not every spouse followed that, certainly the old tradition has been cracked open, and it was not inappropriate any longer for a spouse to be an active, rather than a passive, campaigner."
But the spotlight also brings risk, according to Hess. "Sometimes, of course, they can become an issue themselves, so that can be a tricky business," he says.
In the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, spouses range from virtually invisible like Gloria Cain, to staunch campaigners like Ann Romney, to the focus of controversy themselves, like Marcus Bachmann or Callista Gingrich. Here's a rundown of the GOP spouses on the campaign trail so far:
Gloria Cain. Former pizza magnate Herman Cain's wife Gloria has, for the most part, been missing from the campaign trail. Since spousal responses to a politician's scandal—especially sexual scandal—are frequently the focus of media and public attention, his wife's absence has been glaringly apparent in recent weeks as sexual harassment allegations surfaced from Cain's days with the National Restaurant Association. According to Reuters, there is reportedly an interview with Fox News in the works for Gloria Cain, but it's unclear if and when that will happen.
Ann Romney. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's wife Ann is the most experienced in presidential politics, after her trial run in the 2008 cycle. She has been an active campaigner this cycle, making many appearances on her own. By sharing personal family stories—like about surviving breast cancer and living with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis—she has had a humanizing effect on her husband, who some call a robotic and boring candidate.
Callista Gingrich. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's wife Callista has been a central part of his campaign, often at his side during public events. She published a children's book in September called Sweet Land of Liberty, which follows an elephant named Ellis who travels through key points of America's history. The book emphasizes the nation's "exceptionalism," a common theme in her husband's campaign. But Callista Gingrich's spending habits at high-end jewelry story Tiffany's and the couple's Greek vacation early in the campaign (which was rumored to be her idea) created hiccups in the public's view of her, particularly during tough economic times.
Anita Perry. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's wife Anita has been an outspoken cheerleader and campaigner for her husband. The Lone Star State's first lady has given TV interviews, made speeches, visited nursing homes in key election state New Hampshire, and criticized Obama for being all rhetoric and no record. She also publicly stands up for her husband. In a tearful speech, she told a South Carolina crowd in October that it had been a "rough month" since "we've been brutalized and beaten up and chewed up in the press." She also was a force behind Perry's choice to run in the first place, she said, explaining that while her husband was busy with his governorship and not sold on the idea of jumping in the race, "God was already speaking to me."