Michelle Obama and Ann Romney – in their newly-minted convention roles as top-surrogates-in-chief – looked great, had finely-crafted speeches, and had excellent diction.
But did either of them score a decisive victory in the battle for the “Mom vote,” the all-important undecided independent or swing female voters both wives were clearly aiming to snag for their spouses?
The views on this question from a sampling of moms from New York to San Diego and from gender experts and political scientists are as divergent as are attitudes toward the women’s husbands.
Susan Shapiro Barash, a New York City author, gender expert, and mother of three, says the locker room was abuzz with talk about just this question when she turned up for her crack-of-dawn swim at the 92nd Street YMCA Wednesday morning.
“I was late to work, we were so intensely chatting about it,” she says. She listened to both speeches very closely, she adds. Her scorecard: knockout for Michelle Obama.
“She was so authentic, I related to her, and so did everyone else, from a mother of a nine-year-old to another mom of a 23-year-old,” she says, adding that she had been fairly sure she was going to vote for President Obama. But watching the president’s wife speak about both their life together and all the ways that his personal convictions and experiences had translated into political actions “moved her.”
Beyond that, Ms. Barash notes, “while both women are very appealing on a visceral level, we can’t forget that they are stand-ins for their husband’s politics, who represent very different positions.” She points to everything from abortion to funding for education and health care.
Nonetheless, on a strictly personal level, she says she related most closely to Mrs. Obama. “The way that Michelle Obama spoke last night resonated with me on so many levels, particularly the way she has mothered her two daughters throughout this whole campaign so impressively,” she says, adding, “I couldn’t get to sleep last night, the speech stayed with me it was so thrilling.”
The two speeches played differently on the other side of the country, says Southern California author Antoinette Kuritz, founder of the La Jolla Writers Conference. Also a mother of three and grandmother of four, Ms. Kuritz says how you felt about the two women “depends on whether you were listening to content or delivery; whether you have investigated Obamacare or just believe what you read and hear, whether you subscribe to an entitlement, paternalistic society or not.”
Michelle Obama's delivery was excellent, says Kuritz, who gives her an A-plus. “Ann Romney was hesitant, a bit overwhelmed by being in front of such a large audience with so much depending on her,” she says, which earns her a B-plus.
But, that is not the entire impact, she says, adding that we “expect both women to laud their husband's character and accomplishments. And they did. But knowing what we know about Obama and his accomplishments thus far, understanding his agenda more fully, we are able to judge for ourselves, and because of that,” she says, “Michelle gets a far lower grade for honesty.”
Kuritz adds that she has always voted the candidate and not the party and is still making up her mind, but at the moment, she says, “Ann Romney resonated more with me.”
Both women were very persuasive, says businesswoman and blogger Christine Perkett, who is a registered independent.
Romney was “charming but almost desperate and old-fashioned in her ‘women rock’ sentiment,” she says via e-mail, adding, “we all know winning the Mom vote is huge, and it's not enough for her to just also be a mom and wife.”
She also has to convey that she understands what it's like to be a mom who struggles to pay the bills, works, and also supports her husband and children emotionally, make financial decisions, and balance the pressures of everything men handle, she says.
“My sense of why so many undecided Moms may be more moved by Obama is simple: trust,” says Ms. Perkett. “It's easier to believe that Michelle Obama has faced hardships, overcome struggles, works hard to look good and stay in shape like the rest of us, and is constantly balancing the myriad of challenges that we all face as ‘Average Americans,’ ” she adds.
“Romney has the added challenge of her wealth – and just being a ‘woman and a mom’ isn't enough to connect with today's average Mom voter,” says Perkett.
Both spouses did a good job of connecting with their party’s base, says Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.
“Ann Romney appealed to that 1950s version of America where the dad works, the mom stays at home, there are five children, and they occasionally take a vacation together when the dad can get away,” he says, adding, “this is a very sentimental vision of our country that a large segment of Americans still yearn for.”
On the other hand, he says, Michelle Obama reached out to a wide and diverse population, “including many segments of the population from African-Americans to Hispanics and gays and lesbians.”
The real question is which segment of the population will help a candidate win in this election, says Professor Schmidt.
“In the long run, we are becoming a country of majority minority,” he points out, but says, “with some 75 percent of the vote still coming from whites, that is the segment that candidates have to address in this election.”
This face-off between Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama marks a major change in the role of political wives, says Charles Dunn, presidential scholar and professor at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.
Political wives now serve as character witnesses for their husbands, soften their images made hard by the rigors of the constant bombardment of negative attack ads, and make credible advocates of policy position, he says.
But this shift puts them in a vulnerable position, he says. “If they make a mistake, it could seriously damage their husband’s campaign,” he says via e-mail, adding, “had either Ann Romney or Michelle Obama failed to deliver virtuoso performances, that would have made a chink in their husband's political armor.”