(The Root) — Though President Obama's inauguration for a second term took place just over a week ago, speculation is already rampant regarding who the next black president might be. At the top of many lists is Newark, N.J., mayor and soon-to-be Senate candidate Cory Booker.
Booker is telegenic, Ivy League-educated and a Rhodes scholar; has bipartisan support; and has a list of heroic feats that rivals a real-life superhero's. (He recently enjoyed headlines for saving a dog from freezing to death.) In many ways Booker has the perfect biography to become president, except for one small detail: Booker is a bachelor.
America has elected only two presidents who were unmarried at the time: James Buchanan, the nation's 15th president; and Grover Cleveland, the nation's 22nd (and 24th — he served two nonconsecutive terms). Cleveland, however, married while in office. (Chester Arthur entered office single, but only because his wife died before his inauguration.)
Buchanan never did marry, and his legacy includes persistent speculation about his sexual orientation. A number of experts who weighed in explained that added scrutiny of one's personal life is one of the primary obstacles that a bachelor — or bachelorette — politician aiming for the White House would face.
In an interview with The Root, John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, explained: "If someone is 45 years old and never been married, there will be questions of why. Some will ask if the person's gay — unfairly, but some will ask."
Those questions could affect their electability to the nation's highest office. A 2011 Gallup poll found that while 94 percent of voters would vote for a black presidential candidate and 93 percent for a woman, only 67 percent said they were willing to vote for a gay candidate. As Geer said, "It's a matter of how the other dominoes line up. If you're single because of divorce [that's one thing]. But if you're single and never been married, it's different."
To Geer's point, Booker has faced gay slurs by a political opponent attempting to paint him as unrelatable. When asked recently about Booker's sexuality, a spokesperson declined to comment, although the mayor does "talk openly about dating women," as Buzzfeed has noted. Could Booker and his team avoid answering reporters' questions about his personal life if he opted for a White House run?
Based on what experts say, that is unlikely.
While not commenting on Booker directly, Adnaan Muslim, a political consultant whose firm Mission Control has advised candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), explained that he doesn't believe a single person could be elected president. The reason? "Because voters feel entitled to know about your personal life."
Being single, he explained, opens up a candidate to too many rumors — and not just gay ones. "The minute you've got a single public official, you have all of the tabloids and entertainment news covering [his or her personal life]."
Basil Smikle is a political consultant who formerly worked in the Senate office of Hillary Clinton. He also ran as a bachelor for local office. While he didn't call being single a deal breaker for an aspiring presidential candidate, he did concede that it would be tough. "I'm not sure voters would be able to handle a president that is actively dating. It would be a reality show of insane proportions, considering the amount of press, staff and resources needed to move a president from point A to point B."
Muslim's and Smikle's comments recall the film The American President. Michael Douglas portrayed a single commander in chief who swept Annette Bening's character off her feet. Although Douglas is depicted as a widower, his advisers still struggle over how to cope with the nontraditional image of a president on the dating scene, including tackling tricky issues such as a presidential girlfriend sleeping over at the White House and what kind of example that might set.
Though the film is nearly 20 years old, experts I spoke to believe that society hasn't changed all that much when it comes to how Americans view the role of the president.
"I think it's the not knowing. I think it's not knowing what's going on in their personal life," Muslim said before adding, "And then some of it would be the spectacle of what they do know."
Like if the president's girlfriend starts sleeping over.
Sometimes They Can't Relate
Michael Goldman, a political consultant who has advised candidates such as Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Ted Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, explained that it's not really morality that is the issue of concern to voters when it comes to single candidates, but relatability. "It's always more difficult [for single candidates] because we tend to think that presidents who have families are more like us and share the same concerns about educating our kids, and so we feel more comfortable."
Kevin Parker, a Democratic state senator in New York who has never been married and has held office for 10 years, concurred with this sentiment. When I asked Parker if he believed that being single would be an impediment to him or any other candidate who might run for president someday, he answered unequivocally, "Yes." When I asked why, he replied, "Because there are many corners in the nation and the state where people relate being married to a set of values and experiences that are relatable. Politics are about shared values."
Parker noted that it's more of an issue in some places than in others. For instance, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the state's Gov. Andrew Cuomo are all single men, and one, Cuomo, is a rumored future presidential candidate. Bloomberg and Cuomo, however, are in high-profile, long-term relationships. But their romantic lives might still raise more of an eyebrow in a more conservative state like Mississippi.
Goldman explained that being divorced, which the three aforementioned bachelors are, also makes a difference in the eyes of voters. "You look at Bloomberg, and he's a guy who has dealt with the same everyday realities most people have at some point: having a wife, kids, taking care of them and having to deal with in-laws, etc."
Goldman pointed out that after Sen. John Kerry's divorce, he settled down with Teresa Heinz, his second wife, before running for president. "I think it's fair to say John Kerry's credibility as a national candidate was greatly enhanced when he married Teresa."
Goldman added that remarrying similarly improved the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's professional image after it had begun to fade. "Marrying Vicki [Victoria Reggie Kennedy] helped him tremendously." Goldman summarized his point as this: There is something about marriage and couplehood that many people associate with being a stable grown-up.
Other Times They Discriminate
Geer highlighted one of the ways in which not being married can handicap a candidate. Recalling the racially charged Senate race in Tennessee between former Rep. Harold Ford, who is African American, and Bob Corker, who is white, Geer pointed out that at the end of the candidates' debates, Corker would bring out his wife and children.
Because Ford's extended family, who were also politicians, were facing some unflattering allegations of corruption, they never joined him onstage after debates. On top of that, he wasn't married and often found himself alone. "Being a bachelor, he couldn't as easily differentiate [himself] from his family [of origin] because he didn't have his own," Geer said.
Geer went on to note that Ford's loss speaks to the other dangers that bachelor candidates face — particularly if they are black.
Ford was the target of what is widely considered to be one of the most subtly racist ads in recent political memory, an ad that Geer said made the 1988 "Willie Horton ad look like child's play."
Though it was not widely known at the time, Ford was dating someone — his current wife, Emily Threlkeld, who is white. The ad was seen by those in the know as a way of injecting Ford's personal life, and the politics of race, into a campaign taking place in a deep Southern state with a complex racial history.
Calling the ad "reprehensible," Geer explained that being a single candidate is an issue that really cannot be explored with blanket generalizations because there are layers of gender and race that must be considered. For instance, is a black bachelor candidate held to a different standard than a white one? Geer was quick to say he doesn't know the answer, but those are the kinds of questions we should be willing to ask.
Another political consultant, who asked that his name not be used, did say that he believes women and racial minorities are probably held to a tougher standard than single white males when it comes to questions about their personal lives — the kinds of questions and innuendos that negatively affected Ford.
But ultimately, this consultant concurred with the general sentiment of others that marriage helps.
As Geer explained, "Even his critics believe President Obama has a lovely family." He went on to say, "I think if Harold had been married with a baby — even if she [his spouse] had been white — it would have helped his cause."
What They Really Want in a Candidate
While he said it's not impossible for a single person to be elected president, political consultant Michael Goldman maintained that it's unlikely. He went so far as to theorize that voters prefer a married candidate who has had an affair to a candidate who has never been married. In other words, having an imperfect marriage is preferable to not having one at all. He did say that "as our society changes, that will change, too."
Challenging the idea that one of the main political dangers a single presidential candidate may face is the rumor that he's gay, Goldman predicted, "One day we will have an openly gay president. A gay president in a committed relationship will still be more comfortable for many people than someone who stays single."
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.