In a crowded field of presidential hopefuls, Democratic candidates are turning to an often-avoided subject in politics: Their personal lives.
Elizabeth Warren jokes at nearly every event about how she had to number her husbands. Amy Klobuchar used a debate stage to jest about raising money from ex-boyfriends during her first Senate race. Pete Buttigieg, whose rise was somewhat fueled by the fact that he would be the nation’s first gay president, often says that he came out in 2015 because he “wanted to start to date.” And Joe Biden often talks in deeply personal terms about his late son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.
The disclosures humanize the candidates, giving them a chance to connect with the public on personal terms. And it’s a stark departure from Hillary Clinton’s approach in 2016, when she resisted calls from her allies to show a more vulnerable side of herself in her race against Donald Trump.
Clinton, who faced decades of media scrutiny, would rarely show vulnerability during the campaign, and was often intensely scrutinized when she did – like when she choked up in response to a question during the New Hampshire primary race in the 2008.
Nick Merrill, Clinton’s longtime spokesman, recalls how Clinton has “never been particularly rewarded for getting vulnerable” during much of her career but how that has changed since she stopped seeking public office.
“I think until very recently, particularly if you were a woman, but in general, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of positive feedback for vulnerability,” he said, “because when it gets shown through the prism of the press, it loses its personal touch and it takes on any form people want to interpret it as.”
Warren is the candidate who has done the most to infuse her stump speech with personal stories, often tying her broader political message into a lifetime of reflections. And that includes how she initially dropped out of college to get married in 1968, only to get divorced 10 years later.
“It is never a good sign when you have to number your husbands,” Warren says to explain how she eventually married Bruce Mann after divorcing Jim Warren, a man who came to be known as “H-1” after their split.
This level of openness was laid bare earlier this month when a 17-year-old high school senior in Iowa asked Warren if “there was ever a time in your life where somebody you really looked up to maybe didn’t accept you as much? And how you dealt with that?”
“My mother and I had very different views of how to build a future. She wanted me to marry well, and I really tried, and it just didn’t work out,” Warren said, her voice cracking slightly. “And there came a day when I had to call her and say, ‘This is over. I can’t make it work.’ And I heard the disappointment in her voice. But I also knew it was the right thing to do and sometimes you just got to do what’s right inside.”
The moment went viral, highlighting how an instant of openness can cast a candidate in a different light.
Buttigieg is often asked directly about his marriage to Chasten Buttigieg, a point of interest because the South Bend, Indiana, mayor represents the first top-tier gay candidate from a major political party.
He has said he was married because of “the grace of a single vote” on the US Supreme Court, adding that he thought at the time that “you could either be out, or you could be in office, but you couldn’t do both.”
The relationship Biden speaks most deeply about is with his son, Beau, who reportedly urged his father to run for president before he died.
“It sounds stupid – when I get up in the morning, I think about you know, I hope he’s proud of me. I hope he’s proud,” Biden told “The View” in April.
He has also referred to his late son as both his “heart” and his “soul.”
Beau even loomed over arguably the most contentious moment of his campaign: When Sen. Kamala Harris confronted the former vice president for his legacy supporting federally mandated busing and saying positive things about segregationist senators. After the moment, in an interview with CNN, Biden said the attack from Harris hurt him because she had known his late son.
“I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at me,” Biden told CNN in July.
And then there are the humorous personal reflections, like when Klobuchar quipped about ex-boyfriends on the debate stage.
“My first Senate race, I literally called everyone I knew, and I set what is still an all-time Senate record,” Klobuchar said earlier this year. “I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends.”
“And, as my husband has pointed out, it’s not an expanding base,” she remarked.
For Democrats who worked closely with Clinton in 2016, the openness that some of these candidates are displaying is a sign of change – for the better.
Clinton was widely seen as personally closed off during the campaign, with many attributing it to the personal scrutiny she took during Bill Clinton’s bid for president and eventual impeachment. But Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman and close aide, said it is deeper than that.
“It is much more related to the fact that if you are a woman in the Boomer generation trying to make your way in the world, in a world that was maybe not so excited about you making the way in the world, the way to get ahead was to put your head down, do the work and not tell people how you felt,” Merrill said.
Clinton touched on this herself in an interview with Howard Stern earlier this month, explaining that her guarded approach on the campaign trail was part of her “training.”
“You’re a woman trying to do something that not many other women or any women have ever done,” she said. “You’ve got to stay focused. Don’t get distracted. Guys are going to be trying to say this and say that. You have to just keep going.”