In recent elections, the role of a Republican presidential candidate’s spouse has been rather clear. With a few well-placed winks, she is meant to grab the attention of the middle-of-the-road voter who is worried that the rabidly-conservative GOP base will have the candidate’s ear, and to ensure them that pillow talk will be a moderating force. Laura Bush smoked! She was an avid reader! She—like Barbara Bush and Elizabeth Dole and Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford before her—was pro-choice! Ann Romney, by contrast, has been a crucial part of her husband’s attempt to appeal to the right, ensuring them that any whispered advice will be moral fortification.
There are, first of all, the conservative litmus tests that Mrs. Romney passes with flying colors. Though she donated to Planned Parenthood in the mid-1990s, she, like her husband, has since refashioned herself as pro-life—a position she forthrightly discussed on The View last week. During the same show, she listed working with at-risk youths as one of her causes (in addition to awareness of breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, with which she is afflicted), and said that one of the most important things that can be done for those kids is to let them know that God loves them. This was not her first time invoking religion. Whatever queasiness GOP consultants might feel about drawing attention to the couple’s Mormon faith isn’t shared by Ann. She’s been unafraid to talk about the role religion has played in the couple’s life, framing her husband’s presidential campaign as an undertaking inspired by prayer.
But in some sense, as evidenced by the abortion reversal, those are cosmetic stances, preapproved and tweaked by image consultants. What is more powerful about Mrs. Romney is how she seems to encapsulate a bygone way of life, the old America that seems to have slipped away, an America in which people are prosperous enough to raise five children on one salary, and fill their garage with “a couple of Cadillacs.” An America where the wife has time to make Welsh skillet cakes and volunteer for equine therapy programs and wears pink dresses with nipped waists because that’s how her husband prefers her to look, where her favorite movie, after all these years, is the one she saw on their first date, where she and her husband look at each other adoringly and hold hands in public like they’ve been doing since they were teenagers, because they have. (The Romneys really do think of themselves as joined at the hip: Romney was the first governor of Massachusetts to request that an image of his wife—via a framed picture beside him—be in his official portrait.)
In interviews, Ann Romney has characterized her decisions to convert to her future husband’s Mormonism, to marry at 19, and to forgo any career outside motherhood as radical choices she made in the face of disapproval from her parents and from her newly empowered peers, who, she told the Times, reacted by “turn[ing] their noses down at me.” It was, as she likes to emphasize, almost countercultural at the time she chose it (in the same way that evangelicals sometimes speak of their path as countercultural).
It is this nostalgic embodiment of a time when such choices were possible, perhaps, that explains her rising popularity in 2012, when the rotten economy has done a number on traditional gender roles and left many feeling uneasy about that upending. “If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men,” Mrs. Romney said in her convention speech, mining exactly that nexus of gender and economic anxiety. “It’s how it is, isn’t it? It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.”
But even while Ann has tapped into a simmering wistfulness, she has not exactly helped to make herself more relatable. As she memorably explained to Neal Cavuto on Fox News, "You know, we can be poor in spirit, and I don't even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing.” Plenty of political spouses have given off a whiff of the country club—you could practically smell the freshly mowed links on Teresa Heinz Kerry or Barbara Bush—but Ann seems to come from an even more exclusive strain. In not just the large things (the houses, the horses) but the small things (the habit she has of drawing her pincher fingers together to make a point and to show off her manicure and jewels), she exudes the air not of the woman with whom you might sit and gossip companionably on a deck chair poolside, but rather the woman about whom you might sit and gossip, rather enviously, as she waltzed by—one who realizes, and revels in, her queen bee-ness. (It’s not surprising to learn that Romney has no sisters or daughters.)
Nor is it surprising to learn that she was a country club tennis champion, or won her only personal political foray, at 27, for town meeting representative. As a longtime friend of hers boasted to the Times, “[I]f it’s playing tennis, she’s going to master it and do it well; if it’s raising her kids, she’s going to master it and do it well; if it’s her various equestrian activities, she’s going to jump in and do it well; if it’s decorating her home, it’s done well; if it’s cooking, it’s done well.” If it’s being a candidate’s wife, it’s done well: in addition to her perfectly coiffed, perfectly poised, perfectly empathetic campaign trail demeanor, aides say that behind the scenes, she is an important consultant—and calming force—for her husband. (This competitive streak might help explain some of Romney’s recent, edgier clothing and nail polish choices—if that’s what it takes to get the best-dressed honorarium these days, she isn’t about to cede ground to the First Lady.) Even the very real, very scary tragedies of her life—breast cancer, MS, a miscarriage—happen to be winning squares in political-spouse Bingo.
And yet, try gamely as she might to counteract that country-club image, Romney’s deployment on the campaign trail, meant to introduce voters to the Mitt she knows, can often come across as, well, a little braggy. “They don’t know what kind of heart he has,” she told Kelly Ripa, of voters who haven’t decided to side with Mitt. And she hasn’t quite figured out how to communicate her frustration at the hard knocks of politicking without sounding a tad petulant. “I am so mad at the press [that] I could just strangle them!,” she said in February. “I think I’ve decided there are going to be some people invited on the bus and some people just aren’t going to be invited on the bus.” It was a joke, but one with the hint of the mean girl to it. She is popular, perhaps, in the way that a head cheerleader is popular: you might not like her like her, but her life looks pretty damn good. The difficulty is that, like a head cheerleader, Ann Romney knows precisely how good her life looks.