Melania Trump is more popular than her husband. So why isn’t she joining the president on the campaign trail, offering words of support at rallies or standing alongside congressional candidates?
“Due to her schedule as a mother and first lady, especially with the holidays coming up, there are no plans for her to campaign at this time,” her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said in an email.
In the weeks leading up to the consequential elections, the first lady is spending her time visiting infants in a neonatal ward in Philadelphia, hosting schoolchildren at the White House for a movie screening and preparing for the holiday season.
Meanwhile, President Trump is in full-throttle campaign mode, presiding over raucous rallies, tweeting his support for candidates and referring to Democrats as a “mob.”
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said potential demand for FLOTUS on the trail would be high — “if she was willing. The list would be endless.”
The first lady’s position typically affords her high visibility, public approval, and a role as the rare White House surrogate who can remain above the political mire of the day.
“First ladies are too valuable not to be recognized and used as scarce resources,” said MaryAnne Borrelli, a government professor at Connecticut College and the author of “The Politics of the President’s Wife.” “Their messaging, their fundraising has proven of extraordinary value to the president.”
In previous midterm elections, first ladies have been not-so-secret weapons. And Melania Trump’s immediate predecessors attended fundraisers to help fill their party’s coffers and worked to get-out-the vote even when their husband’s names weren’t on the ballot.
But to some, her decision to stay out of the midterms isn’t surprising.
She isn’t a natural campaigner, and her role in her husband’s 2016 campaign was more limited than that of other candidates’ spouses. She has seemed nervous when delivering public remarks, unlike her husband, who relishes the attention of chanting crowds and reporters with outstretched microphones.
“If the first lady wasn’t a massive presence on the presidential trail, it’s not likely she would be in the midterms,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “It appears that she isn’t terribly interested in campaigning.”
Trump has also been thrown off message because of missteps, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, recalling the controversial pith helmet the first lady wore in Africa and the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket she wore as she boarded a plane to visit shelters on the border.
“In some ways, she’s a wild card — we don’t know what she’s going to say or do,” Lawless said. “And in the days before an election, candidates want to minimize unknowns and minimize uncertainty.”
Story lines that inevitably follow the Trumps could prove a distraction on the campaign trail, too. Heye said that the media often parses the first lady’s words, looking for distinctions between the often-silent Melania Trump and her bombastic husband.
“Anytime she speaks, the focus is all about trying to draw a contrast with her and her husband,” he said. “That would become one of the lead stories of the day — and that’s what [campaigns] are trying to avoid.”
Modern first ladies have taken varying approaches to midterms, with some holding back in the earliest cycle of their White House tenure. “First ladies have traditionally had a lower profile in the first midterm of their husband’s presidency” Borrelli said. “For a lot of reasons people mention — maybe they’re saving their political capital for the presidential reelection, or the West Wing is making sure they think they are sufficiently seasoned.”
In 2010, Michelle Obama went on a late pre-election sweep, stumping for endangered Senate candidates and headlining a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in a cycle when Democrats were particularly concerned about connecting with female voters. In her stump speech, she sought to strike a less partisan note than typical political combatants, often referring to herself as the “mom-in-chief.”
In the hours before the polls opened, she joined a rally in Las Vegas for then-Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and made a get-out-the-vote pitch to students in Philadelphia.
In 2014, with poll numbers notably higher than her husband’s, she made appearances on the campaign trail, including in Georgia and Iowa, and she worked on get-out-the-vote efforts and fundraisers. “Make no mistake about it: Barack’s last campaign was not in 2012, Barack’s last campaign is this year, 2014,” she said at a fundraiser in Chicago.
Laura Bush mostly shied away from the campaign trail in 2002, but she hit the trail hard and early in 2006, when she, too, was far more popular than her husband. According to an analysis by Roll Call, Mrs. Bush had headlined more than a dozen events for congressional Republicans by May of that year.
She also did solo appearances and joined her husband in making closing arguments for the GOP in the waning days of the campaign. “People should ask, ‘Who is responsible? Who has a responsible view, who of the people that you have the choice to vote for would be the most constructive?’” she said in an interview with C-SPAN following a rally for congressional candidates in New York. “And of course I think that’s the Republicans.”
That’s a sentiment some in the party these days would probably like to hear coming from Melania Trump’s lips, too. A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee referred questions about demand for the first lady to her office.
Rather than spending her time on the campaign trail, Melania Trump has been slowly raising her own profile — using her own playbook. This week, she introduced her husband during an event at the White House marking the passing of legislation aimed at easing the opioid crisis, an issue she has focused on as part of her Be Best initiative.
Such forays follow her inaugural solo trip overseas to Africa earlier this month, where she sat down with ABC, the first such interview since before her husband was elected. “I’m staying true to myself,” she told ABC. “I want to live meaningful life. And that’s the most important to me. I know what my priorities are.”
Her recent willingness to step into the spotlight seems designed to shore up her own platform and causes rather than the GOP’s.
“It’s clear that it’s planned and methodical,” Heye said of the first lady’s rollout. “She’s trying to do this on her own terms.”