The Beautiful Art of Hassling Politicians While Wearing Animal Costumes

It’s a rite of passage for campaign workers — and an underappreciated pillar of our democracy.
Tristan Busel in a moose costume in New Hampshire in January. (Photos by Elizabeth Frantz)

The Tyrannosaurus rex emerges from the men’s room and almost runs smack into Michelle Kwan. It’s just another morning in Manchester on the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. Kwan, the former figure-skating champion, is here at the aptly named Rex Theater to stump for former vice president Joe Biden; the T. rex — or to give his full name, “Rx T. Rex” — is here to stomp for AARP, against the outrageous cost of prescription drugs.

Inside the T. rex is a 24-year-old named Adrian Ramos, who, because his field of vision is limited, does not realize he almost collided with Kwan. His job is to get outside to work the line of voters waiting to enter the event. Ordinarily, Rex would go roaring up and down beside them wearing a red T-shirt that says “Stop Rx Greed,” but it’s freezing this morning and the sidewalk outside the theater is narrow and icy, so Rex moves gingerly, escorted by a pair of AARP staffers. He bends low for selfies, gives high-fives and poses for photographers, most often in a stance that resembles Usain Bolt’s trademark lightning-bolt pose, if Usain Bolt had tiny, stumpy arms.

“I give a roar, and Todd provides a subtitle,” Ramos explained to me when we met up the day before. He was referring to Todd Fahey, AARP’s New Hampshire state director, who accompanies the T. rex on his outings as interpreter and guide, chanting slogans and making sure Ramos doesn’t get hit by a car. Fahey’s subtitles don’t vary much: “Rex wants candidates to hold Big Pharma accountable!” he’ll say. “Lower the cost of prescription drugs!” It’s all part of AARP’s massive nationwide effort to hold candidates’ feet to the fire over health care. AARP has deployed red-shirted volunteers to numerous candidate town halls and rallies, getting there early to make sure they’re down in front when Q&As start. And at the tip of the spear — or claw — is seven wobbly feet of dinosaur. On Oct. 30, in a coordinated show of force, red-shirted T. rexes appeared outside statehouses in all 50 states.

AARP hired Ramos in August as a temporary contractor to work through the end of the New Hampshire primary. His main job consists of social media, videography and photography, but he thoroughly enjoys playing AARP’s saurian mascot, which he says he’s done about 10 to 15 times. “It’s about putting yourself aside and letting people interact with the symbol,” he says of his approach to portraying Rx T. Rex. In adopting this strategy, he didn’t have much choice; he can barely see or hear in there, and the state’s sharp wind gusts can turn the head into a windsock, blinding him entirely. Often, he listens to music with one ear bud, which helps him focus and stay calm. “I’m an introvert at heart,” he said earlier in the bathroom as he zipped up the suit, which began to inflate thanks to a small battery-operated fan at his waist. Getting into costume is a production; often when he arrives at a venue, he has to change in the bathroom (“like Superman,” he jokes). But AARP’s vast army of volunteers loves him, and so — this part is crucial — do press photographers. That’s what he’s there for. AARP is quite serious about its campaign to lower drug prices and safeguard Medicare, which is why it has resorted to the patently absurd. Rx T. Rex’s purpose is simple, says Fahey: “Cut through the noise.”

Yet that is easier said than done — in part because there’s a deafening amount of noise in American politics in 2020, and in part because Rx T. Rex is far from the only costumed mascot roaming the land. This is an election year in America, which means that in states with early presidential primaries like New Hampshire and South Carolina — or with hotly contested Senate races like Maine — moose, chickens and polar bears have started to appear outside union halls, high school gyms and truck stops, clutching signs that read: “Stop Hiding Trump’s Taxes” and “Fossil Fuels = Climate Crisis = Extinction.”

Whether feathered or furred, all of these animals belong to the same political species: the bird-dogger. Bird-dogging is an ancient art in itself: The term refers to a dog sent by hunters to charge into the brush and flush concealed birds into the open, where they can be shot. Political bird-doggers are people who have been dispatched by advocacy groups and rival campaigns to raise specific issues at public events. Among this broad group of troublemakers are a subset who dress as mascots for the purpose of challenging, flustering or somehow embarrassing politicians. Over the years, the bobble-headed antics of these bird-doggers have become as much a part of the American political circus as corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair.

To keep pace with the competition for America’s eyeballs, the costumes of bird-doggers have been getting increasingly baroque. In 2015, the group NextGen America, founded by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, towed an inflatable iceberg behind a speedboat on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Two staffers in moose costumes clung to the iceberg as they floated alongside a dinner cruise, which was slated to host, among others, presidential hopeful Scott Walker. (The moose, according to Brian Rogers, NextGen’s New Hampshire state director, fell in the water multiple times as the ship’s passengers screamed things like, “I hope you drown!”) In January, the Republican National Committee in New Hampshire trotted out beds and volunteers in sleep masks and nightcaps at Biden events, with signs saying “Sleepy Joe” — President Trump’s insulting nickname for the candidate. The Committee to Defend the President (formerly Stop Hillary PAC) has crafted a giant box of “Biden Corn Pops,” in reference to Biden’s claim that, in the ’60s, he confronted a Delaware gang leader named Corn Pop. Recent years have brought forth Big Birds, Miss Piggies, tires, handmaids, giant EpiPens, mariachi bands, the Monopoly man and, in one case in April, someone dressed as Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg whipping Jesus Christ while Satan looked on, appalled.

But animal costumes remain the most popular because they are versatile, relatively cheap and, for those Iowa and New Hampshire winters, toasty. Temperatures were subzero the night of the recent Democratic debate in Manchester, but a jarringly realistic polar bear from the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group working to protect endangered species, stayed very warm — “too warm,” argued the polar bear, who was there to press candidates to discuss climate change, “because our planet is melting.” NextGen’s Iowa press secretary , Murphy Burke, keeps a pig costume in the trunk of her car so she is always prepared to protest Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who is up for reelection. (The group also has billboards with King’s face that read: “The only pig from Iowa who doesn’t make us proud,” a reference to the congressman’s racist comments.)

And this is only the beginning. The 2020 general election is shaping up to be a historic war for voters’ attention, and on the front lines there will, inevitably, be somebody dressed as swine.

Olivia Weals and Tristan Busel of the group NextGen America dress as a clown and a moose, respectively, to campaign at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., in January.

Candidates have learned to be leery of ludicrously costumed interlopers ever since “Chicken George.” In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign sent volunteers dressed as giant chickens to then-President George H.W. Bush’s campaign stops, protesting Bush’s initial reluctance to debate. Eventually, Bush began fighting back, going as far as releasing live ducks at a Clinton event, in reference to Clinton’s having avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. But the sitting president made an unforced error when he engaged one of the chickens, a move that elevated the stunt beyond Democratic hopes. The media said that the president “snapped” at the bird and that he was “rattled.” Eli Attie, a writer and former aide to Al Gore who based an episode of “The West Wing” on the incident, sums up Bush’s mistake: “You can’t win an argument with a chicken.”

Hillary Clinton was slightly savvier when she welcomed a giant orange squirrel in 2014, but even then, the interaction still brought joy to Republican hearts. The former secretary of state was on a highly publicized tour promoting her memoir, “Hard Choices.” She hadn’t yet announced her 2016 presidential bid, but everyone knew she was running. The Republican National Committee had come up with a slogan: “Another Clinton in the White House is nuts.” T-shirts were made. Then, according to Sean Spicer, who was the RNC’s communications director at the time, they realized that “in the storage area … was a giant squirrel” left over from 2008 efforts to attack the voter-registration group ACORN.

“Never have I ever encountered a former secretary of state or former first lady, so I don’t know how to act. And I’m in an orange squirrel costume.”

Spicer, who later served as Trump’s first White House press secretary, tells me he considers himself a devotee of stunts “that can drive messages without having to have a big budget, because in politics, you don’t have a budget.” (Spicer himself has never worn a costume on the campaign trail, although he has dressed up as the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg Roll.) A summer intern named Justin Giorgio was tapped for squirrel duty. “There were only two or three other people who were tall enough to wear it,” Giorgio recalls. “I was more or less volunteered by the other interns.” For two weekends, Giorgio’s job was to haunt Clinton outside her events, mostly walking up and down the line of people waiting to get inside. “I’d get in costume at RNC headquarters, then get in the Uber,” holding the heavily padded orange head in his lap. But it was mid-June in Washington, when the sun is like a hammer on an anvil. The squirrel costume was suffocating, and the head offered little range of vision. “It was like 95 degrees, super humid. I had other interns and a staffer with me, and their job was basically to make sure I didn’t walk into traffic, and hand me water bottles. I’m pretty sure that week I lost 15 pounds. ... I was just pouring sweat in that costume.”

But the squirrel was a triumph. “We got ABC News to do an entire evening segment on the f---ing squirrel,” Spicer says. The media had taken the bait. And then, a few days later, Clinton did too. Giorgio was outside an event, perspiring. Clinton’s limo rounded the corner. But instead of passing him, the car pulled over and Clinton stepped out. Giorgio had “a moment of panic” because, he says, “I’m a 21-year-old kid ... never have I ever encountered a former secretary of state or former first lady, so I don’t know how to act. And I’m in an orange squirrel costume.”

Spicer succinctly describes what happened next: “Hillary walks over to the f---ing squirrel and hands him a signed copy of her book.” It was inscribed: “Squirrel — Please make a hard choice and read my book. — Hillary.” “The Colbert Report” did a seven-minute segment on the squirrel. Host Stephen Colbert, in character, called it “the best use of a mascot in politics since Stephen Douglas dressed up as a banana and said Lincoln was ‘un-a-peel-ing.’ ” Spicer concedes that from Clinton’s standpoint, it made sense to show that “you get the joke.” But from an operative’s perspective, it was “gold” to have a presidential candidate “engaging with a furry squirrel.” For his part, Giorgio, who has since left politics, was genuinely shocked that Clinton was so pleasant to him. “It’s one of those moments where you realize that each candidate is a person, too, with a sense of humor,” he says. “I would hope that she got a giggle out of it at least.”

NextGen staff and volunteers, including Busel and Weals, engage students at the University of New Hampshire.

Almost as important as picking the right costume is picking the right person to wear it. A good bird-dogger needs the kind of devotion required to sprint after a candidate in knee-deep snow while dressed like a moose, but they also need judgment. “I don’t pick the craziest person,” says Morgan Finkelstein, an associate director at the Center for American Progress and a veteran mascot dispatcher. “I pick the person with self-control.”

Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and current co-host of “Pod Save America,” was 20 or 21 and working as a press intern on Jeanne Shaheen’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate campaign, when the Democratic National Committee wanted to protest the GOP’s “trash attacks” against her. “So, they had me just walk out from behind a dumpster wearing a trash bag,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable.” A local TV channel filmed a segment on it. Favreau’s friends have tried doggedly to find the footage, especially before his wedding, but came up short.

Michael Zona was not as lucky: He wound up with a mug shot. In August 2014, Shaheen, who by then was running to be reelected to a Senate seat from New Hampshire, was in Londonderry, N.H., for the Old Home Day parade, and a 23-year-old Zona was there waiting for her in a bright yellow chicken suit. The RNC had sent him to draw attention to Shaheen’s failure to hold town hall meetings. Shaheen was marching with Gov. Maggie Hassan when Zona stepped out from the crowd and made straight for them, yelling and flapping. Police felt he got a little too close — he had been cautioned already — and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The police report notes that he was contrite and “elected to remove his chicken costume” before being placed in handcuffs.

The charges were eventually dismissed. Not only did the RNC offer a robust defense of Zona, so did the New Hampshire ACLU. Zona’s reputation was also made. He received two promotions over the next year, and, three years later, at 26, he was named the communications director for a GOP senator, a job he still holds. In fact, a lesser-known side effect of bird-dogging is what it does for the careers of young, ambitious staffers. “A lot of political leaders today would be very angry with me if I revealed to you the various costumes that they wore when they were young organizers,” says Ray Buckley, the long-tenured chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. He calls getting into costume “a rite of passage.”

This rite of passage isn’t limited to the United States, either. In the United Kingdom, the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid, has frequently set loose a staffer in a very elaborate chicken suit to pester Tory politicians it deems to be dodging them. In 2010, a Mirror staffer named Lee Cain put on the suit to taunt then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The Mirror reported that Cain “attacked the role with real zeal and passion.” Today, Cain — having evidently had a change of political heart — is the director of communications for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Some instances of bird-dogging are the result of meticulous, long-term planning. Others take shape, literally, over night. On a frigid evening in February 2016, Eddie Vale and Kevin McAlister, strategists for the liberal political action committee American Bridge 21st Century, were holed up in a hotel room outside the Manchester airport, drinking beer and watching the last Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary. They watched as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whom Vale had considered to be a grave potential threat to Clinton, said, “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Then, they watched him say versions of those lines again and again. After the third time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attacked: “There it is!” he crowed. “The memorized 25-second speech.” It was the kind of moment that can cripple a candidacy, but still Rubio couldn’t stop himself. As if programmed, he uttered the cursed phrase one final time.

The next morning, Londonderry voters waiting to get into Rubio’s town hall were greeted by Marco Roboto and the Rubio Talking Point 3000: McAlister and Vale in robot costumes slapped together with cardboard boxes and a Sharpie. Vale wore a stainless-steel colander on his head, with foil antennae sticking out.

“We just pulled it out of our a--,” says Vale. It wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a finger in the eye of the Rubio campaign. Mostly they hoped to take advantage of the fact that after months of tailing a candidate, political reporters tend to be pretty bored. Top-tier campaigns are often rigorously scripted and stage-managed. The “Groundhog Day”-like monotony combined with a 24-hour news cycle means that if something “new and stupid,” as Vale puts it, happens on the trail, the media seize upon it.

Police felt the chicken got a little too close and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The police report notes that he was contrite and “elected to remove his chicken costume” before being placed in handcuffs.

Thus, when Marco Roboto and the RTP3000 pulled up at Londonderry High School, jumped out of the car and started sprinting across the parking lot in colander and cardboard — like, Vale says, “the world’s stupidest SWAT team” — reporters pricked up their ears. So did Rubio’s advance team. Even though the robots had American Bridge’s web address written on them, a Rubio staffer raced out with a large sign that read: “Another desperate attack by Jeb Bush.”

Seeing that Rubio’s staff was annoyed, McAlister and Vale kept the gag going. They followed Rubio’s bus to the next event, a polling place in Manchester, where robotic reinforcements showed up unprompted: Aaron Black from the liberal group Americans United for Change arrived in a shiny fabric store-bought costume and a sign reading “#ROBOTRUBIO.” Black even got within a few feet of the senator, but this time, Rubio’s supporters rose up against their robot tormentors. First, staff and volunteers began trying to physically block the robots from coming near the candidate, throwing large “New Hampshire is Marco Rubio Country” signs in their way. Someone shoved Vale to the snowy ground, knocking off his colander. “I was in a box and I couldn’t really get up,” he remembers. Another person grabbed McAlister and tore off his cardboard boxes. Finally, just a few feet from the candidate, in full view of the press corps, a man put Black in a headlock and tried to haul him away. In videos, Black can be heard saying, “Why do you have your hands on me? Look at all these cameras!”

By midday, the images were everywhere. Vale and McAlister kept it up for a few more days (and later, American Bridge sent more mascots — the “Absentee Manatees” — to troll Rubio in Florida). “It worked. The media had a heyday with it,” concedes a source familiar with Rubio’s campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A few days later, at a stop in Nashua, Rubio repeated one sentence multiple times in a row, and the media narrative that he was just a programmed, glitching machine became inescapable. He finished a distant fifth in the primary. A month later, he ended his campaign. Vale still has the colander in his house.

A truck with flags supporting President Trump outside a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in Nashua, N.H., in January.

Strategists are under no illusions that putting someone in a costume is going to change anyone’s mind. Sending out mascots “is not a persuasion campaign,” says Finkelstein. “I don’t think you’re bird-dogging anyone to persuade them to do anything different.” Rather, the point is just to be there. To plant the flag for a candidate or a set of ideas. To get attention by making people laugh — or at least smile.

And so, Rx T. Rex continues roaring across America, an absurd ambassador for a deadly serious message. Todd Fahey (who points out that AARP also uses poignant testimonials in its messaging strategy) understands the power of humor to cut through noise: “If you can concentrate your message in one iconic, if absurd creature that has come back from prehistoric times, if it works, and if it’s potent, and if it brings about change, absurd or not, it’s worthwhile.”

All of which might make bird-dogging seem like an odd fit for politics in 2020: a time when politics feels anything but fun or whimsical. “This campaign is horrendous,” says Jim Cole, who was for 35 years the Associated Press photographer in New Hampshire, and is glad to have retired this year. Where once candidates spent time on the trail doing silly stunts — Bill Clinton calling bingo, Gary Hart throwing an ax — Cole says that, now, “all they’re doing is going to large function rooms with a microphone. That’s it.”

Campaigns reflect the mood of voters, and the mood of voters today is grim. “Part of the problem is, [costumes] aren’t funny anymore,” says Finkelstein. “It’s sad and it’s scary out there. So what am I supposed to do, have someone [dressed as] a fake missile? That’s not funny, that’s f---ing terrifying.” In an atmosphere like this, a campaign that resorts to humor or stunts to get attention risks being accused of frivolity.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. We may have forgotten this in our current circumstances, but presidential campaigns are inherently ridiculous. Organizationally, they most closely resemble a traveling circus. At heart, they consist of a single person, attended by a sleep-deprived, underpaid retinue of dozens, traveling the country imploring people to make them the most powerful person on earth. A healthy democratic politics would make room for occasional reminders of this fundamental absurdity.

That is why the people in mascot costumes matter. They aren’t just there to harry candidates. They are there to signal that, as seriously as our politicians take themselves — especially at a moment when the very future of democracy appears to be in peril — those same politicians are also, at some level, deeply silly. To forget that would be a grave error — because the alternative is seeing them as saviors. Right now, the stakes of this election may seem too high for stupid stunts. Which is exactly why, strange as it sounds, we need Rx T. Rex and his weird, whimsical cousins more than ever.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Murphy Burke as NextGen’s Iowa state director. Burke is NextGen’s Iowa press secretary. This version has been updated.

Samuel Ashworth is a writer in Washington.

Designed by Christian Font and Twila Waddy.

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