Girl power: How the candidates’ wives take on voters too

By Sophie Marsden 

There is a saying that behind every powerful man stands a woman and it is no secret that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have two strong and enchanting women behind them.

Many journalists have even speculated that the role of the spouse is that of a permanent running mate who can equally help or harm a campaign.

Libby Lewis, an American scholar in women and gender at UC Berkeley says: “The wives of presidential candidates are capable of anything. They know that the stakes are high, which is why they try to be careful of what they say, how they say it, and even what they wear.”

Family image is an aspect played out heavily in a highly mediated US presidential election. Family photos and televised reactions from both the wives and children are displayed throughout the press in order to show off a united and happy support system.

A “secret weapon”

Ann Romney was labelled the Republican’s secret weapon back in August, when she spoke at the Republican National Convention about her devotion to her family.

She softened Romney’s image as a rich and powerful businessman who is disconnected to the people through anecdotes about himself as a young average American guy. She reminisced about the times he “laughed nervously” and “ate only pasta with tuna fish.”

The wives have become a very large part of politics, says Adrian Moss, an American student studying political science in the UK” “They show the people in the public scene that these men are accessible and that they are just regular old guys running for president.”

Not on the sidelines

Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention proved her influence over voters.

Reducing the audience to tears she referred to a shared set of family values touching upon Obama’s humble background and presenting him as a President for the people.

She also used personal anecdotes to humanise her husband, describing the time he picked her up for a date in a car that was so rusty, she “could see the pavement going by through a hole in the door.”

The First Lady is no longer expected to stand on the sidelines, but instead takes centre stage making important speeches and public appearances.

The role of the First Lady has the potential to change sexist perceptions of women, says Lewis: “We know that they may potentially be an influence over the presidential candidates, which is a very powerful position that should not and is not taken lightly by American women voters.”

After serving four years as the First Lady, Michelle Obama has almost become an American obsession.

“We see Michelle Obama as this Jackie Kennedy figure, who is very much a celebrity,” says Moss. “People want to be her and so in the public eye the wives become a large part of the candidates platform.”

While the wives act as campaign surrogates throughout the election it is imperative that they are not seen to have too much influence over their husband’s political focus.

Previous former First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton faced numerous criticisms for breaking traditional roles and taking up controversial issues.

Instead Ann Romney and Michelle Obama encompass a smoother style when discussing policies. They are seen to take up issues that compliment their husbands, often discussing issues that would relate in particular to female voters.

The wives feature weekly on American chat shows and in lifestyle magazines addressing women as fellow mothers, wives and friends, rather than voters.

With less than 2 weeks left until the winner of the presidential election is announced it will be interesting to see how these strong women influence voters in key swing states.

We also spoke to two experts in the candidates wifes from Bournemouth University.