Campaign Kids: Jon Huntsman's Daughters and the Politics of Family Jon Huntsman's Daughters and the Politics of Family
Jon Huntsman will probably not be our next president. His poll numbers have hit an all-time low, leading some to believe that he won't even qualify for the next debate. But that's not stopping him from staying in the race and continuing to use his secret weapon: his incredibly attractive, telegenic family.
Huntsman's seven kids, in particular, have been front and center in his bid for the GOP nomination. Annie Leibovitz shot luminous photos of them for a Vogue feature story. Huntsman's campaign site features videos of him with his family on the campaign trail. His leggy, cheerleader-ish daughters, Mary Anne, Liddy, and Abby, have even set up a Twitter handle for him, @Jon2012girls—tweeting anything from Miss USA Utah photos to fun family factoids.
How does a candidate know when to bring their kids into the fold? Bringing in children to inject a campaign with a bit of youthful sensibility—or creepy sex appeal, in the Huntsman family's case—is a fairly new phenomenon, one that's had varying success in the last few years. In the age of reality shows and social media, photogenic kids can become a useful accessory to a successful campaign, but trotting them out is as big a gamble as running for office in the first place.
Of course, children have taken a ceremonial role on the campaign trail for decades, from Tricia Nixon to Chelsea Clinton to the Palin clan. But only recently have they been given their own platforms, like blogs or Twitter feeds, to talk directly to their peer group. The strategy is not without its risks. Meghan McCain joined her father's campaign in 2008, blogging on the road as McCain Blogette. But the effort backfired—she was kicked off the McCain campaign five weeks before the election, apparently for having too much personality. Later, she wrote a memoir about her experience as a "political prop," admitting bluntly that her job was to "keep a smile on my face, look admiringly at my father, and clap at the appropriate times," and dishing that the campaign managers made her get rid of her "stripper" blond hair and skimpy clothes.
So far, the GOP candidates, other than Huntsman, haven't put their kids to work as active campaigners. Mitt Romney's son, Tagg, is on Twitter, but has fewer than 1,000 followers. We hear a lot about Michele Bachmann's five kids, but we haven't seen any of them on the road with her. They're following the old-school, pre-Internet model of sheltering their brood from ruthless reporters. In 1992, 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton was the subject of a People magazine profile that didn't include a single quote from her; she wasn't allowed to speak with the media.
But lately, as more women run for office and parenting becomes more equal, candidates have pulled back the curtain on their family life to bolster their image. Even though the exposure of her daughter Bristol caused a media firestorm, Sarah Palin used the trope of the busy, working mother to her advantage in the campaign, and later, in her public persona. Huntsman has said bringing his kids on the campaign trail is a way of making sure the campaign doesn't come between him and his family. But is their only job just to smile and nod? Or are they allowed to have an opinion?
Only time will tell whether Huntsman's trio of hottie daughters will help his campaign, or whether any of them will develop a Meghan McCain-like rebellious side. But either way, he's taking a risk. The benefits of trotting out the family seem to outweigh the invasion of their privacy—as long as they don't say too much.