PHILADELPHIA — “With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us,” Michelle Obama told the Democratic National Convention on Monday night. Her children, the first lady said, had lived a strange childhood in many ways, one in which they had been taught to ignore “those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.”
Without ever saying Donald Trump’s name, Obama told the American people how her own children had already been personally and adversely affected by the GOP nominee. She spent the rest of her remarks telegraphing one main message to the public: Your children are watching this election. What are they taking away from it and how will it shape their formative years?
Obama’s speech created an undeniable moment in the hall, particularly when she, in a single thought, reminded the American public of its historic election of a black president and summed up that strongest of emotions, parental pride: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful intelligent black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
But the first lady was also doing yeoman’s work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. By sounding the concerned parent note, she was on-message for how the Democrats are trying to frame this election: “Who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” Obama said.
It’s a savvy play by the Clinton team, because parents who had children under the age of 18 (36 percent of the electorate in 2012) have tended to vote for the winner in recent elections.
In 2000, these parents voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore, 52 to 45 percent (Gore, of course, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College). In 2004, at the height of America’s terrorism worries and involvement in overseas wars, they voted for Bush again, 53 percent to 45 percent over John Kerry. When Barack Obama came on the scene, though, Democrats started winning parents of younger children, grabbing 53 percent of the vote compared with John McCain’s 45 percent in 2008, and while the margins closed slightly in 2012, Obama still won parents with kids under the age of 18 by 51 percent compared to Romney’s 47.
In fact, Michelle Obama’s remarks on Monday night built on work the Clinton campaign has already put out: Earlier this month, Clinton released an ad that shows children watching television while the worst of the worst of Trump’s notorious politically incorrect remarks play — profanity, mocking a disabled reporter, talking about shooting someone in the middle of New York and still getting votes. The doe-eyed kiddos stare into the tube. “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?” flashes across the screen.
There’s also a Trump argument to be made from the parental point of view — he is the self-professed law-and order-candidate in a time when terrorist attacks and mass shootings dominate the news. Remember the “security moms” of the early 2000s?
But for Clinton, making this election about the moral and civic life of the country’s children could be a smart way for an unpopular woman candidate to make an effective play against her unpopular male opponent. Don’t do it for yourself, the Clinton camp is saying; do it for the kids.