And so we enter the Season of the Surrogate, a once-every-four-years occurrence fraught with off-message meandering and narrative-undercutting peril, not to mention the promise of on-message boostering and narrative enhancement. Unleashed, countless surrogates marshaled by the D’s and the R’s expound on everything from debt reduction to partisan dysfunction, from social ills to oil spills.
The surrogate is a unique political creature, a channeler of someone else’s ambitions, someone else’s predilections and dreams; a force capable of reaching voters intellectually, emotionally or both. Ideally, the surrogate can be tamed — handed a sheaf of talking points to be eloquently and efficiently delivered. But the surrogate can be a wild thing, too — an unpredictable and dangerous beast, a “necessary evil,” as Phil Singer, a senior adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, puts it. With so many outlets clamoring for interviews, choosing the right surrogates has become “one of the real arts of politics today,” says Singer, who now runs Marathon Strategies, a communications firm with offices in New York and Washington.
Witness the Democrats wincing in the run-up to last week’s convention in Charlotte, when Obama surrogate and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pulled off a mega-oops, fumbling that most elementary of questions from CBS’s Bob Schieffer: Is the country better off than it was four years ago? O’Malley’s response (“No”) as well as hesitant replies to the same question by other advocates for President Obama almost made things too easy for their Republican counterparts — no degree of difficulty there. The power of the surrogate affirmed. In this case, the power to create headaches for the campaign.
Republicans have had their misadventures with surrogates this cycle, too. Remember John Sununu, the notably unexpurgated former New Hampshire governor, saying he wishes Obama would “learn how to be an American”? The comment set off a furtive round of apologizing that distracted from the Romney campaign’s efforts to focus attention on jobs and the economy.
The campaigns and their national party committees keep long lists of surrogates, stamping everyone from popular governors and big-name activists to local elected officials with their imprimaturs. The Romney campaign, for instance, has at its fingertips a roster of 20 to 30 go-to national surrogates on the economy. The Republican National Committee keeps a list with hundreds of names placed strategically throughout the country in coordination with the Romney campaign. “The more people spreading our message the better,” says Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the RNC. Organizational superstructures are built exclusively to recruit them, wrangle them, schedule them and prep them. “We cast a wide net and do outreach to potential surrogates based on word of mouth, but also take suggestions,” Kukowski said.