Skip to content

Can your spouse help you get elected? Here’s what data from Africa say.

4 Nov 2016
By Kim Yi Dionne, Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

Originally posted on Monkey Cage Blog.

  Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

Candidates’ spouses have received significant attention in the U.S. presidential election scheduled for next week. There are even polls measuring public favorability of spouses — not just for the 2016 race, but going back to at least 1988.

These spouse favorability polls don’t really seem to matter, though. Having a popular spouse doesn’t guarantee an election win, and having an unpopular spouse doesn’t tank your bid for office.

But there are ways in which your spouse can help you get elected.

In a recently published article, “The Spousal Bump: Do Cross-Ethnic Marriages Increase Political Support in Multiethnic Democracies?,” Claire Adida, Nathan Combes, Adeline Lo and Alex Verink, political scientists at the University of California at San Diego, examined whether presidential candidates could win the support of voters who have the same ethnicity as candidates’ spouses.

Adida and colleagues studied the “spousal bump” by fielding an experiment in Benin and through analysis of related trends in other African countries using Afrobarometer data.

The Benin experiment: How the first lady’s ethnicity increased support for her husband

Benin’s president at the time of the experiment, Boni Yayi, is a Yoruba (more specifically, a Nago) on his father’s side but is also of Bariba descent from his mother’s side. Adida shows (in another, related experiment) how Yayi could either cue voters about his ethnic heritage from his mother’s group to solicit support from other Bariba or cue voters about his father’s ethnicity to solicit support from other Yoruba.

While these two groups make up a significant portion of Benin’s electorate — geographically covering much of the country’s north and central regions — the largest ethnic group in Benin is the Fon. (In the 2014 Afrobarometer survey, 41 percent of Beninese interviewed reported to be Fon.)

Adida and her colleagues found that mentioning Yayi’s ethnicity significantly increased support for her husband among voters from her ethnic group. While only 19 percent of Fon supported Boni Yayi in the control condition (where there was no mention of Chantal Yayi or her ethnicity), 41 percent of the Fon who were reminded of Boni Yayi’s Fon wife supported him.

Beyond Benin: Looking at patterns in Afrobarometer data matched to new presidential spouse data

Going beyond Benin, Adida and her colleagues created a new data set on the ethnicity of leader’s spouses to be matched to the 18 African countries included in Rounds 3 and 4 of Afrobarometer.

Examining Afrobarometer data for similar trends sets a much higher bar for the researchers’ test. Unlike in the Benin experiment, Afrobarometer respondents are not reminded about the ethnic group of their president’s spouse before being asked whether they support the president.

Still, Adida and her colleagues found that when a leader marries across ethnic lines, co-ethnics of the leader’s spouse are more supportive of the leader than citizens who shared neither the leader’s nor the spouse’s ethnicity. These findings from Afrobarometer suggest cross-ethnic spouses are a potential resource for drawing more support in a multiethnic setting.

While Adida and her colleagues focused their analysis on African countries, they conclude their study by pointing out the importance of spouse effects more broadly — reminding readers of the political marriages of the Roman Empire. So I have to ask: Is anyone studying attitudes toward the U.S. candidates among Slovenian Americans?