Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kids can soften a candidate’s political brand, but there are caveats

Sean Parnell launched his campaign at a bike shop near North Park in McCandless.
Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
Sean Parnell launched his campaign at a bike shop near North Park in McCandless.

Politicians’ kids can help candidates connect with voters. But pundits warn running for office isn't always child's play.

In 2019, Western Pennsylvania Republican Sean Parnell, requested a judge’s permission to use photos of his kids amid an ongoing custody battle. Parnell cited a brand strategist’s advice to do so to “in order to harness the potential of his customer base [and] secure new followers,” a petition filed on his behalf asserted. Parnell, the filing added, “needs to be unrestricted in his ability to include reference to the children on his social media platforms.”

Such a request may seem blunt, but those who study political messaging agree: Kids can play a key role in connecting with voters.

“[Kids] can show you that these [politicians] are people like you,” said Dr. Ken Cosgrove, who studies political branding and teaches political science and legal studies at Suffolk University. “People pick up on this, they do, and they sort of see the things politicians do …. and the ways they present themselves, and they make decisions off of that.”

Parnell is a decorated Army veteran, mortgage consultant, and author who lost his Congressional race against Democrat Conor Lamb last year. Parnell appeared frequently with Donald Trump backed him in 2020, and endorsed him in the state’s Senate race next year. Parnell, meanwhile, joined a lawsuit to toss out millions of mail-in ballots in attempts to retroactively hand Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to Trump in 2020, and said as recently as this summer that he supported a “forensic” audit of the election.

But those stances are softened in campaign ads and social-media outreach in which Parnell’s children are featured, including one ad about his daughter.

“I thought I was a tough guy who made tough choices. But then, I had a daughter. Now she makes the tough choices,” Parnell says, as his daughter makes decisions about what dress to wear and how to style her hair. “My kids are my world. I lay awake at night trying to make sure I do right by my daughter and my sons so they can have the great country I inherited.”

The ad came out just a few weeks after Parnell was criticized for comments he made about women in TV appearances (Parnell is a contributor to Fox & Friends), which he later said were tongue-in-cheek.

“I feel like the whole ‘happy wife happy life’ nonsense has done nothing but raise one generation of women tyrants after the next,” he said. “I think modern-day feminism has driven a wedge between men and women. … The idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilling life without a man, I think it’s all nonsense.”

When asked about Parnell’s decision to include his children in its messaging, the campaign declined to comment. But featuring kids prominently in a campaign is often intended at softening a politician’s image, says Cosgrove. And Quinnipiac University political science and women’s & gender studies professor Jennifer Sacco agreed.

Sacco recalled the introductory remarks of then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. The conservative judge drew immediate pushback from the Left, due to concerns that another conservative justice would roll back abortion rights.

“[Kavanaugh’s] whole speech of introduction to the world was: ‘I am a softball dad, I coached my kid's team, it's my daughters team.’ And it was a lot about his daughter's softball, which was an interesting way to introduce yourself as a nominee for the Supreme Court,” Sacco said. “So if he anticipated some of the criticisms that might have been coming his way….then that may be a strategic deployment of his parenting and his children.”

But while appearing with their families may be advantageous to male candidates, the same standards often don’t apply to women running for office.

“And that’s not a bias against politicians, that's a bias against women at work in general,” Sacco said. “Men don't have that same conundrum when it comes to depicting themselves as ‘dad.’ There's not a penalty in the workspace for being an active, hands-on dad. Usually that's rewarded at least in workplaces.”

Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics Executive Director Dana Brown agreed that women have to be “very careful” about how they present themselves and their families. While she said biases are changing, there are still double standards.

“One of the questions that women get on the campaign trail, particularly around Western Pennsylvania that I've heard anecdotally, is folks still want to know if you have young children, how are you going to be involved in their lives? Who's taking care of them?” Brown said.

One of the few female candidates in the race, Montgomery County Democrat Val Arkoosh, does not mention her children in campaign literature.

Other candidates in the race bring up their families to varying degrees. Democrat John Fetterman often tweets photos of his kids to his followers. Conor Lamb tweeted a few photos over the summer of him and his baby at Pride events or Democratic events.

But while kids can soften a candidate’s brand, Jennifer Sacco says there are other ways to achieve a similar result without posting photos of your kids online, where anyone’s comments are preserved and public.

Sacco said candidates often convey their family values through stories of hardships or lessons from their parents or grandparents, a tactic that incorporates one’s family but leaves young children out of the spotlight.

“You don’t have to do this to your kids!” she said. “You can be seen with constituents if you're going to your kid's hockey game. You don't have to have your child in the picture. You can be photographed in the stands cheering them on and say, ‘I'm at my kid's hockey game!’ But your kid’s face and name doesn't have to be there, necessarily, in order for you to show that you're an active parent.”

In recent weeks, Parnell himself has argued that children should be shielded from political debate. Earlier this month, according to the Tribune-Review, he asked a judge to seal court documents including two protection-from-abuse orders in his ongoing child custody battle with his ex-wife.

“I signed up to run for office, my kids did not,” Parnell said.

A judge rejected Parnell’s request on Thursday.