In several focus groups with undecided women who shop at Walmart at least once a month, conducted in Virginia and Nevada, Obama’s family served as a signal that he understood their lives.
More women discussed the first daughters more than some of President Barack Obama’s most pronounced policy initiatives aimed at female voters (no mention of Sandra Fluke, the Violence Against Women Act, even the administration’s contraception coverage policy). A young Richmond mother of one simply said, “Michelle is hearing what we have to say.” Another Richmond mom even remarked she believed the president watched out for her because he’s “surrounded by women” at home.
While there has been a gender gap for decades, with women tending to favor Democratic candidates, President Obama is nonetheless benefitted by his relationships with women.
Michelle Obama is down to earth and comes from a working-class family. She was a mother who worked for pay and she and President Obama paid off their student loans just eight year ago. Besides focusing on childhood obesity, the First Lady has emphasized help for veterans.
All this helps Americans — including those Walmart moms — to connect with the Obamas.
As political scientist Samuel Popkin writes in the brilliant new book, The Candidate: What it Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House:
The rituals, ceremonies, and behaviors of the First Family may be different from a monarch or emperor — monarchs, emperors, and empresses might not eat with their fingers, kiss babies, walk in parades, or engage in small talk with strangers — but they are no less demanding. They are always on display, and people will judge their suitability in part by observing their family and the way the national family can connect with them.
Romney also has a nice family, although his background has its own landmines, particularly his Bain background.
[A]ds casting Romney’s former private equity firm, Bain Capital, in a negative light did ring a bell with a few women. As one Richmond woman described it, “Romney cut jobs when he was in charge of a factory.”
And, in other focus groups, Romney was not seen as someone people could connect with. Rather, he was regularly described as “out of touch,” having a “cavalier attitude toward those less fortunate,” and, especially angering to the group’s participants, placing “millions in an offshore account” to avoid paying taxes.
No matter how lovely his family, Romney’s wealth separates him from Americans’ day-to-day lives. How all this plays out and the extent to which it matters remain to be seen.