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Lucy McBath is a surrogate. Not the kind that carries a pregnancy for an infertile couple, although in some ways, she says, the analogy fits. “I carry a message instead of a baby,” she says.
McBath, a retired Delta employee, whose full-time work now is as a gun control advocate in memory of her 17-year-old son Jordan Davis, is a surrogate for the Clinton presidential campaign, traveling the country to appear alongside, or on behalf of, the candidate. She is part of a sprawling network of surrogates for both parties overseen by staffs back at headquarters whose full-time jobs are to keep them on time and on track.
Using someone else to speak for candidates is a tradition as old as America. In the earliest days it was thought unseemly for a candidate to campaign personally, and when Aaron Burr broke that rule in 1800 he lost (and didn’t take it well). By the early 19th century, surrogates were a way of spreading the word around a large country with a limited transportation system — and were also useful for candidates who just didn’t like leaving home. James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley all ran “front porch campaigns” where they literally held court in front of their homes, talking to voters who traveled to see the man who then carried his thoughts back to their own towns.
In this current campaign, the reason for surrogates has nothing to do with false humility, perhaps a little to do with both candidates’ desire to sleep in their own beds and everything to do with feeding the Twitter-YouTube-cable beast. And the way each candidate deploys and coordinates surrogates reflects a lot about the very different natures of their races.
The Clinton campaign has a multilayered team, with a surrogate director, Adrienne Elrod, who has been with this campaign since it began, and who also worked on Clinton’s 2008 run. She coordinates several dozen subcoordinators. McBath, for instance, as one of the “Mothers of the Movement,” is sometimes in contact with Elrod, but other times works with the staffers who specifically coordinate gun control surrogates, or African-American surrogates, or women surrogates.
The Trump surrogate team, in turn, is smaller, less structured, and less stable. There are a total of four people on that staff ‑— and that is after a three-person expansion in September. Bryan Lanza, the current leader of the team, came aboard in mid-July after two others had left that same job — one after being there for just two weeks. There are 30 to 40 surrogates on the Trump list, compared with about 200 on Clinton’s, in part because fewer public officials and celebrities have signed on with the Republican, but also because the candidate himself is so omnipresent with his own message. There’s less need for someone else to speak on your behalf when you are awake at 3 a.m. to tweet your message out yourself.
The biggest difference between the teams is how they use their surrogates. Trump’s are almost entirely on television, rather than at rallies and such. Trump’s children regularly speak on behalf of their father, and early this week Melania Trump gave a rare interview in support of her husband. Also vice presidential pick Mike Pence, in addition, gives his own speeches. But all the work of the Trump surrogate team is coordinating the TV appearances of those who are not relatives or ticket-mates, and who have become identified with the campaign — politicians like Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson and Chris Christie; celebrities like Omarosa Manigault and Scott Baio; and previously unknowns like A.J. Delgado, Scottie Nell Hughes, Jeffrey Lord and Boris Epshteyn.
Clinton, meanwhile, uses surrogates for everything and everywhere. Like Trump’s surrogates, Clinton’s are TV regulars (think Paul Begala, Donna Brazile, James Carville), but their role is broader, and there are surrogates who also tweet and snapchat for Hillary, write on the HillaryClinton.com website, join phone banks, go door-to-door registering voters, and give speeches, all organized and overseen by the campaign.
Singer John Legend toured college campuses in Ohio recently ahead of that state’s voter registration deadline. Sheryl Sandberg spoke at a living room fundraising event in New York. The cast of “Scandal” made a video earlier in the year backing Clinton.
And this week the full power of the Clinton surrogate team was on display, as President Obama spoke in Miami, Vice President Biden in Nashua, N.H., and the surrogate who is proving to be the most effective of all this campaign — Michelle Obama — in Phoenix.
Some surrogates step up and volunteer their support. “I reached out to them early on, during the primaries,” Bradley Whitford says. He contacted Gene Sperling, a longtime Clinton economic adviser who also consulted on “The West Wing,” who in turn put him in touch with Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri. Separately Mary McCormick, who was on “The West Wing” for two seasons, learned the campaign was “looking to get some celebrity lubricant out to Ohio” to publicize a voter registration drive, so she and Whitford arranged to get the gang back together.
“Allison [Janney] was from Ohio, and Mary got in touch with Josh [Malina] and Dulé [Hill] and Richard [Schiff], and we all went out to “energize people.”
Others, like McBath, are personally recruited. She remembers her phone ringing with an unfamiliar number and being invited by the head of African-American outreach to attend a meeting last fall that Clinton held with a dozen women who had lost sons to gun violence.
At first, she said, she thought the call was a prank. But since that meeting she and the other “Mothers of the Movement” have traveled the country for Clinton, appearing at the Democratic National Convention, testifying before its platform committee, speaking several times a month, in groups and individually, in churches, at rallies, on the radio.
As she describes it, every moment of her trip is meticulously managed by the campaign. About two weeks before each appearance she receives a packet telling her where she will be traveling, who her audience will be, how long the event will last, the purpose and message of the event. It doesn’t tell her how to dress — she knows it is business attire with comfortable shoes — and while it includes potential talking points, she says she rarely uses them. “I know what I want to say,” she says. Transportation and hotels are paid for by the campaign, but her time is donated.
She is accompanied by at least one staff member, she says, often two or three, depending how many other “Mothers” are at the event. She describes her “handlers” as “being very tender with us,” aware that with each speech the women are reliving a loss.
The surrogate staff makes sure she eats (a boxed lunch for busy days, a gift card with money for a sit-down restaurant lunch when there is time), and they protect her from press questions she might not want to answer. When one reporter became particularly aggressive about the Second Amendment, she recalls that the staff “shut it down. That interview was over.”
On another day, a lunch stop happened to be just blocks away from the Jacksonville, Fla., service station where McBath’s son was shot by another customer who objected to the volume of the music on the teen’s car radio. The surrogate staff “was in a tizzy about it when they realized. They kept apologizing and they felt so bad,” McBath says. “They said, ‘We’re sorry, we didn’t mean to hurt you.’”
Between appearances, both the Clinton and Trump teams keep their surrogates in the loop with regular emails and conference calls. Here, again, the differences in the campaigns are evident. Clinton’s outreach is like clockwork, surrogates say. “It’s mind-boggling how organized they are,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. “I get daily messaging by email and there are conference calls every two or three days.” The emails are sent to his personal email account, not his congressional one, he says, not his office because of federal law that aims to separate politics and governing.
Trump’s ongoing outreach is more sporadic, says one former surrogate who did not want to be identified because he or she is no longer as involved with the campaign. For a time there were regular conference calls, which became less frequent, and then were picked back up again at the end of the summer. Since September, when surrogates were asked to consult with the campaign before booking their own TV appearances (something Clinton’s surrogates have long been asked to do), there has been a daily call with whichever surrogates have interviews scheduled in the next 12 to 24 hours.
That request was an attempt to manage the near chaos of the Trump surrogate message. There were (still are — the reining in has not entirely worked) days where surrogates hijacked news cycles with controversial comments or were contradicted hours later by Trump himself. Back when Trump was engaged in a campaign questioning the impartiality of the judge overseeing the federal lawsuit against Trump University because he was “Mexican,” Erica Freeman, who at the time was in charge of circulating talking points to surrogates, sent out a memo suggesting that they avoid the subject. But on a conference call Trump reportedly urged them instead to bring the subject up and accuse reporters who asked about it of being racist themselves, according to an account at the time by Bloomberg.
When told they’d received a memo instructing otherwise, Trump reportedly said, “Take that order and throw it the hell out.” Soon afterward, Freeman left the campaign, along with Kevin Kellems, who had been directing the surrogate operation for just two weeks.
Later, during a call after the first debate, Trump reportedly lit into his surrogates for suggesting he might have lost the round. And most recently, after his surrogates spent much of the day explaining that he meant it was the media that was rigged against Trump, not the electoral system itself, the candidate took to Twitter to say otherwise.
Perhaps because of the different sizes and varying levels of strictness of the surrogate operations, those who speak for Trump seem to go rogue and make news themselves more often than those who speak for Clinton.
Clinton surrogate and former DNC chair Ed Rendell, for instance, created outrage in May when he suggested that Trump would lose the “ugly women” vote because the candidate so often insulted them. “Trump’s comments like, ‘You can’t be a 10 if you’re flat-chested,’ that’ll come back to haunt him,’” Rendell said in an interview with the Washington Post. “There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women. People take that stuff personally.”
This led an editor for Think Progress to tweet, “Can we all agree that Ed Rendell should never open his mouth again ever please?” For a while he didn’t, at least not on behalf of the campaign. But by the Democratic National Convention he was talking again, most recently warning that his candidate not appear “smug” in the final weeks.
The Trump team, in turn, has had surrogates tweet a cartoon of Clinton in blackface (Pastor Mark Burns); say Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason” (veterans issues surrogate Al Baldasaro); suggest that “riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing” (CNN regular Scottie Nell Hughes), and accuse President Obama of “rigging” his own election in 2008 (senior adviser Boris Epshteyn).
The campaign itself did not distance itself from most of these comments, so it is unclear whether the surrogates were following the script. All are still regulars on the airwaves.
Not all surrogates go the distance, however. Ted Cruz made one appearance at a campaign phone bank right before the 2005 tape broke of Trump speaking crassly on a bus, and that seems to have ended his participation. Paul Ryan didn’t even get as far as his first official campaign appearance for his party’s nominee, disinviting Trump from a Wisconsin rally after the tape became public.
And Chris Christie, one of the few who did in fact travel regularly with Trump, and was an early and regular surrogate, is saying things lately that are probably not on the emails of official talking points.
When asked on Tuesday, for instance, about the candidate’s ongoing warnings that the vote count would be “rigged,” Christie said, “He’s going to have to speak for himself. I don’t speak for him.”
(Photo illustration above: Yahoo News, background photos: John Locher/AP [2}; top row from left photos: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for 2016 Essence Festival, Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, Calen Cooper/Yahoo News, Evan Vucci/AP; middle row photos: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters, Todd Williamson/WireImage/Getty Images; bottom row photos: Joe Raedle/Pool via AP, Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Evan Vucci/AP)