By Alicia M. Cohn - 09/12/12 09:00 AM EDT
During a cycle in which both presidential campaigns need to move the dial on the female vote, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are making an obvious bid for their attention.
Aside from campaign appearances, the two women got prime-time speaking slots at their husbands’ nominating conventions, giving speeches that won rave reviews.
Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama gave a heartfelt, personal speech about President Obama and their life since his elevation to the presidency.
Both speeches captured the most interest in search-engine traffic and social-media chatter on their respective evenings, giving the wives a national buzz to build on in the coming days of the campaign.
But although Ann Romney has been at her husband’s side for a number of broadcast interviews, she has yet to challenge Michelle Obama’s widespread media dominance.
Instead, she has continued to follow the same pre-convention diet of morning news show appearances, private fundraisers — including one with former first lady Laura Bush — and smaller rallies, such as the Seacoast Republican Women Chili Fest in New Hampshire last weekend.
“I think that Ann Romney’s deployment would closely resemble Michelle Obama’s in 2008,” said Liza Mundy, author of a 2008 biography of Michelle Obama. “[In 2008] she really became a proxy for the audience in describing how she took this journey from being skeptical of [Obama] to falling in love with him.”
And with women being one of the most important voting blocs this election cycle, both wives are making the case for their husbands.
For Ann Romney, that means headlining “Women for Mitt” rallies and shouting, “I love you, women!” onstage at the GOP convention.
For Michelle Obama, it means not only hitting the campaign trail but reaching out to niche female-centric markets such as BlogHer and iVillage, speaking both about her gardening and healthy-lifestyle initiatives and about how her husband’s policies help women. She is also following up a wide variety of reputation-building media appearances — ranging from “iCarly” to “Sesame Street” — with an appearance on daytime talk show “Dr. Oz” on Wednesday, followed by an appearance next week on the “Rachael Ray Show.”
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, called it another “incumbent advantage,” because not only is the first lady more sought-after than the wife of the challenger, she has already transcended much of the controversy of the first campaign.
That controversy included battling charges of elitism similar to those Ann Romney sought to confront in her convention speech.
Ann Romney has demonstrated an ability to connect with women, particularly by emphasizing her role as a stay-at-home mom. In addition, a Washington Post/ABC News survey released at the end of August showed Mitt Romney is leading President Obama among married women 55 to 40 percent, while Obama leads 57 to 32 percent among unmarried women.
But Baker dismissed Ann Romney’s ability to move women of any kind into the voting booth, saying she cannot single-handedly change the fact that her husband cuts an “enigmatic figure” in the minds of voters.
“I’ve never seen any first lady able to reverse a candidate’s deficiencies,” he said. “I think she’s selling a tough product to sell.”
In contrast, Michelle Obama is furthering an image already well-established by the 2008 campaign and her husband’s media appearances.
Mundy said the first lady has “perfected” her role as America’s sweetheart, especially in comparison to Obama’s earlier campaigns.
Michelle Obama “really did not used to be comfortable in front of an audience,” Mundy noted. “I think Michelle Obama has perfected a kind of ‘girlfriend’ role.”
That image translates well to daytime talk shows such as “The View,” formats where Ann Romney might not be nearly as comfortable. On the other hand, Mundy said, cooking on a show like Ray’s would be a “low-risk” way for Ann Romney to gain more exposure.
“There’s no reason for her not to play up her domesticity, the mom role,” she said. Domesticity likely isn’t the key to the female vote, but Mundy said in a campaign, the prospective first lady’s “role is to say, ‘I love this man; you should love this man.’ ”
Ann Romney’s press secretary, Sarah Haley, said that the former first lady of Massachusetts will stay at the forefront of the campaign with just two months until the election.
“As we march towards victory in November, you can expect for Mrs. Romney to maintain a strong presence both on the campaign trail and in the media,” Haley said. “One of Mrs. Romney’s greatest contributions to the campaign is not only her ability to show people what a devoted father and husband Gov. Romney is, but also to attest to the governor’s strong leadership and skill set that will turn around the economy to help get our nation back on the right track.”