For Democrats, a stable of surrogates ready to campaign

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, January 9, 2016

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — While Hillary Clinton rallied Democrats out West this week, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, carried her campaign’s message through Iowa. Next week, when the Democratic front-runner returns to Iowa herself, her daughter, Chelsea, will be courting supporters in New Hampshire.

The family tag-team across the early voting states is just a glimpse of the stable of surrogates on standby to help elect another Democrat to the White House in November.

President Barack Obama has already pledged to be an active participant in the general election, though he’s unlikely to endorse a candidate in the primary. Vice President Joe Biden has made clear he wants to play a role. And popular first lady Michelle Obama has grown more comfortable on the political stage and would likely get involved in the 2016 race to protect her husband’s legacy.

Email newsletter signup

It’s a weighty group of Democratic stars that Republicans acknowledge they simply can’t match.

“One of the things about being out of power in the White House is you don’t have as many folks with a national profile,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election.

While surrogates don’t win elections for candidates, high-profile backers can play a valuable role in attracting media coverage, targeting specific constituency groups, and pulling more people into events where the campaigns can collect voter information.

Bill Clinton’s events Thursday in Iowa checked all of those boxes. He spoke to about 1,000 people across two events in eastern Iowa, plus dozens more during a stop at a local market in Cedar Rapids. His events attracted more national media than sometimes show up to events with presidential candidates, and he also got front-page coverage in the Dubuque, Iowa, newspaper.

“He brings out the crowd and he never disappoints,” said Tom Fruehling, 70, a Democrat who attended an event in his hometown of Cedar Rapids. Fruehling is still deciding between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“He’s a huge asset. What a great partner,” said 63-year-old Elizabeth Bunce, also of Cedar Rapids, who is backing Clinton and volunteering for her campaign.

Clinton campaign aides said the former president will be back in Iowa before the Feb. 1 caucuses, and they also expect Chelsea Clinton to make appearances in the state this month. The campaign also announced plans for Bill Clinton to make stops in New Hampshire next week.

To be sure, Bill Clinton and some of the other potential Democratic surrogates come with liabilities. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has already made clear that the former president’s campaigning makes the transgressions that marred his White House tenure fair game. Bill Clinton was also out of step with modern campaigning and sometimes off message during his wife’s failed 2008 campaign, though it appears her current team is keeping him on a shorter leash.

Obama, too, has liabilities. While he remains popular among Democrats, polls show the public is increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of foreign policy.

If that persists, Clinton may not want extra reasons to remind voters that she served as his secretary of state for four years.

The president and first lady will likely be asked to help rally groups that made up the “Obama coalition” during the 2008 and 2012 elections, including young people, blacks and Hispanics. Biden has been an effective messenger to working-class white voters.

“Turnout will be key for Hillary Clinton and these surrogates will be a critical part of the strategy,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist backing Clinton.

Republicans have a handful of potential surrogates with national name recognition, though it’s unclear how the party’s eventual nominee might use them in the general election, if at all.

The biggest questions will surround former President George W. Bush. While his standing with Americans has improved after leaving office deeply unpopular, his legacy among Republicans remains a complicated one. He’s also avoided politics in recent years, though he’s appeared at private events for his brother Jeb Bush’s struggling presidential campaign.

Republicans have also embraced Romney anew, particularly after he decided against running for president a third time. He’s still a draw for wealthy donors, but it’s unclear how much help he’d be to a GOP nominee in the general election swing states he failed to win himself.

Come Election Day, however, even the best surrogate is unlikely to seal the deal with voters.

“That still does fall on the one person whose name is on the ballot,” Madden said.