Ann Romney is not photographed as well as Michelle Obama. If you need a stellar full-length shot of Michelle, it’s not hard to find with a quick search on Getty Images. If you need the same of Ann, BuzzFeed’s photo editors and I have found, you’ll have to dig a bit harder. Ann is more likely to be awkwardly cropped, hidden by a shadow, or photographed at an awkward angle.
You get a sense of this just looking at Michelle and Ann’s Google Image results. Michelle’s top result is basically flawless:
Ann’s is an incredibly awkward shot of her leaving a restaurant, her eyelids half-closed and hair mussed.
This disparity has nothing to do with who’s more attractive or photogenic (both are attractive, well-dressed women, let that be said now). Rather, it suggests that the media demands different types of coverage of the candidates’ spouses, and that each has grown into their role on the campaign quite differently.
“I’m saying this as a foreigner: when I look at Ann Romney, I see someone who [is] a very traditional American, well-to-do, well-dressed woman,” said New York Times photographer James Hill, who is British, lives in Russia, and has covered elections all over the world. “Everything’s in the right place. It’s all very neat and tidy, but it’s maybe not very exciting. Whereas when you see Michelle Obama, you’re seeing somebody who’s different. Who’s more brick-breaker, who’s tall and sort of has pizzazz and style, and is very self-confident as well. You see that.”
Republican strategist Bay Buchanan said that Michelle Obama may be photographed better this election than Ann since she’s been under intense public scrutiny for much longer. “Michelle Obama has been first lady for four years, so of course there’s been a lot of attention and she’s developed a lot of followers out there, both in the media and outside the media. And so you expect people to say, ‘What is she going to wear?’” Buchanan said. “If Ann Romney becomes first lady, I’m sure the same thing will happen but it’ll just be a little bit different.”
She’s right — it’s not fair to compare Michelle’s current campaign photos to Ann’s since Michelle has been first lady for four years now, has developed a strong following, and will naturally have a bigger, more visible role. So we went back and looked at Michelle’s treatment in the 2008 race to see how it measured up to Ann’s. We looked at Getty because that’s our go-to source for photos of the two, and focused on the time period between when the candidates knew they had their party’s nomination up to today’s date, October 18. April 10, 2012 was about when Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, clinching Mitt Romney’s nomination. And June 7, 2008 is about when Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign, giving Barack Obama the Democratic nomination. Here’s what we found with those dates in mind:
• Michelle appears in 992 photos on Getty tagged “michelle obama” between April 10, 2008 and October 18, 2008.
• Ann only appears in 645 photos on Getty tagged “ann romney” between April 10, 2012 and October 18, 2012.
• Michelle appears in 556 photos on Getty tagged “michelle obama” between June 7, 2008 and October 18, 2008.
• Ann appears in 589 photos (so, slightly more than Michelle) on Getty tagged “ann romney” for the period from June 7, 2012 to October 18, 2012.
The difference between photos of the two women from the June to October period is small enough to be insignificant. But looking at that April 10 to October 18 period, Michelle was photographed 54 percent more than Ann (who has MS and may have been on the trail a bit less).
Michelle’s position in the campaign was exciting and historic: she was in the running to become the first black first lady. Ann would be another white first lady with a hardly surprising inclination for Oscar de la Renta dresses. The number of images of Michelle suggest that she was very exciting to the media even before she was dressing that spectacularly. Here she is at a primary event in Pennsylvania on April 22 of that year:
I find it impossible to imagine her wearing anything like this now, and even by 2008 fashion standards, am surprised she wore it then. However, her clothes became more of a Thing in the late spring and early summer of 2008, when the little-known Maria Pinto emerged as her favorite designer. Michelle famously wore a purple sheath dress by Pinto when she fist-bumped her husband at a campaign rally in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 3, 2008.
“I think Michelle Obama was very much part of this young, exciting equation. She was part of this change, — a black president, a young president. It was a watershed in American politics,” said Hill. “And I guess that she was part of that. [She wears] bright, solid-colored dresses — you can’t miss her, let’s face it.”
Around the time of the fist bump, Michelle’s clothes became an obsession and full-length shots of her outfits became necessary for pretty much every women’s media outlet. She continued wearing things by atypical designers like Isabel Toledo and even mixed in $40 dresses from H&M, and the occasional sweater set from J. Crew as she worked the campaign trail. These moments defined her early on as a cool, occasionally thrifty, and tasteful woman. She was a media darling, ending up on six magazine covers during the campaign (seven if you count the controversial New Yorker cover) compared with Ann Romney’s two magazine covers so far this campaign.
So, Ann Romney hasn’t created the same intrigue as Michelle Obama. She wears Oscar de la Renta, like many first ladies before her (a label Michelle has never worn). She has a horse that competes in the sport of dressage, the point and rules of which remain murky to most Americans. She just doesn’t have the same cool factor as Michelle.
And a lot of the difficulty with photographing either of them comes from the constraints put in place by security and the campaigns themselves, who want to control every aspect of their coverage. Photographers can only stand in one confined place, which sometimes prevents them from getting the best shots of the candidates and their spouses, if they’re around. But also the campaigns orchestrate every detail of publicity opportunities, including what the spouse’s involvement will be and, probably, where that person will stand. “The world we live in is so very conscious of image. People are afraid, I think,” Hill said. “And the campaigns obviously follow as well.”
And some from the Republican party rebuffed suggestions that Ann is standing in Mitt’s shadow or photographed consistently badly.
“You’re not looking hard enough,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus told me when I asked why she was plagued with bad photo luck. “I think there’s a lot of great photos of her. She’s a pretty lady.”
— With research by Alanna Okun.