With the arrival of Jon Huntsman, father of seven, into the Republican presidential primary race, the field is beginning to resemble a Holiday Inn on Kids-Stay-Free Weekend. There are big families all over the joint. And it’s not just that many of the candidates have brought so many humans into the world. It’s that they want to talk about it.
At the recent Republican debates, candidates were practically one-upping each other with their fecundity. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum sort of started it by wrapping up his opening statement this way: “Karen and I are the parents of seven children,” he said of his wife. Up next, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who noted she and her spouse had five children and “were the proud foster parents of 23 great children.”
Not to be outdone, in his introductory spiel former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney referred to his five sons, five daughters-in-law and 16 grandkids. Clearly, he’s responsible for delivering a lot of new voters. But not as many as Texas Representative and former obstetrician Ron Paul. “I delivered babies for a living,” he said, “and delivered 4,000 babies.”
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The other candidates — Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich — have two kids apiece, and everyone but Gingrich mentioned them, but it was the really big families that got everybody’s attention. Is fertility becoming a presidential quality? Why were big families touted so enthusiastically at the debates?
In the era of reliable birth control and working, time-strapped women, big families are an eye-catcher. They hold enough fascination for the general public that they have been the anchor of at least least two reality shows (TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 19 Kids and Counting). They’re a staple of the tabloids, which offer a steady of diet of photos of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s large brood and snippets of news from the Octomom.
While those associations are not always positive, a big family does make a candidate look very grounded. “A real piece of this is that they’re trying to quickly introduce themselves to the voters,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s a shorthand way of saying ‘I’m authentic and real.’ A big family demonstrates that they understand what voters experience, because they experience it too.”
Large families can also telegraph, without actually saying anything, where a candidate stands on reproductive rights. Several of the candidates are part of religious groups (Mormonism and Catholicism) where bearing large numbers of children is encouraged. Their fruitfulness is a way of communicating that they’re committed to their beliefs.
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“It would not surprise me if a decision has been made across the Republican consultants to espouse this image,” says Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president of the Womens Campaign Forum and former Democratic congressional candidate. Large families are a sign of a preoccupation with home and hearth, rather than with a high-powered Washington career. “Given the mood of the electorate, to be inside the Beltway is dangerous.”
Of course, the nature of a debate is to outshine your competitor, which led to the apparent litter-size one-upmanship among the Republican candidates. Some people dismiss it as a non-event. “I think voters by and large are concerned with the state of the economy and creating jobs as opposed to the size of a candidate’s family,” says Danny Diaz, a former Republican National Party spokesman. “And this comes from a father of four.”
Other campaign experts note though, that having a big family can show that a candidate has a sense of duty, is a multifaceted person, can manage a hectic life and — key to this election — probably knows how to stretch a dollar.
Some point to Sarah Palin, whose children were front and center in her campaign for vice president in 2009, as a watershed candidate for large families. “A big part of the bump she got after the convention was from that image of her on stage with her five children,” says Walsh.
After the convention, when she began to draw criticism for running when she had young kids, conservative voters came to her defense, which was also an unfamiliar sight. But despite those inroads — and those made by Nancy Pelosi when she gathered dozens of lawmakers’ children and grandchildren to the podium after her swearing-in ceremony in 2009 — children are still something of a double edged sword for women running for office.
Michele Bachmann (five kids, 23 foster kids), was either smart or lucky enough to have her children while she was young, so that they’re all pretty independent by now. (Her oldest is 28.) It’s unclear whether she will face the same scrutiny that Palin did as the campaign heats up.
Female candidates with younger children are often encouraged to downplay their role as mothers, and not put a lot of family pictures on their campaign material. “If they have young kids, people ask, ‘Who’s going to raise those kids?’” says Walsh. For men, on the other hand, highlighting the kids is nearly always a net positive, because voters assume his wife will raise them. “There he is with the family and the golden retriever. It’s a great image.”
Sometimes, especially if they have younger children, women in public office pull the brakes on themselves, in the manner of Lisa Madigan, Illinois’ Democrat attorney general. Since Illinois is the home state of the current President — and recently found itself down a Governor (after it divested itself of Rod Blagojevich) — you’d think she’d be well-placed for higher political office. But she didn’t run, saying her current job, plus her two young kids, keep her busy enough.
But with a total of 30 kids (not including foster children or grandchildren) on the GOP Presidential trail, it’s possible that campaign staff may soon have a new refrain: We’re going to need a bigger bus.