US election

The Risks Behind Deciding Who Speaks for a Campaign

By September 8, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

The most basic task of political campaigns is communicating with the voting public. Because U.S. political campaigns are built around the candidacy of just a single person, the campaigns face the daunting challenge of not just managing the time of the candidate to put her to the most effective use, they also need to figure out who else can speak for the candidate in public.

The candidate can not be everywhere at once, and in order to ensure that the campaign’s point of view is part of the conversation, and to rally supporters, campaigns need to send people who speak for the candidate to TV studios, campaign events, fundraisers, and more. For that purpose, campaigns typically distinguish between spokespersons and so-called surrogates.

Rudy Giuliani in Phoenix

Trump surrogate former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Phoenix, Arizona wearing a Make Mexico Great Again Also hat [Source: Gage Skidmore, CC]

Spokespersons are campaign and communications professionals who are employed directly by the campaigns. They specialize in doing TV appearances and responding to press inquiries, as well as putting out statements on behalf of the campaign. When a spokesperson makes a mistake it can cause major headaches for a campaign because there is a direct line of responsibility that ends with the candidate herself.

Depending on the need, even campaign managers and strategists will act as spokespersons. For example, this year the Clinton campaign’s pollster and chief strategist, Joel Benenson, has frequently spoken for the campaign, and Trump’s new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has also been an effective spokesperson for the Trump campaign in appearances on major news shows.

Surrogates are somewhat more complicated. They are generally celebrities, or otherwise well-known individuals like elected officials, who are not directly employed by the campaign, but are used as high-profile speakers. They can act as validators for the candidate, by lending their credibility, star-power, or their expertise, and so they usually speak at rallies, fundraising events, or on specific issues in TV appearances.

The Clinton campaign has a number of very high-profile surrogates, ranging from celebrities like George Clooney and Lena Dunham, to elected officials like President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden themselves. Trump has less high-profile surrogates and relies more on comparatively unknown individuals, and a core group of big names like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This has been described as the “surrogate gap”.

The problem with surrogates is that campaigns have relatively little control over them but whatever they say and do publicly, reflects back on the campaign. Unlike spokespersons, surrogates are often less adept at dealing with the media, and they do not answer directly to the campaign, so they can’t be compelled to stop if they become a problem.

Campaigns typically have teams dedicated to managing surrogates by providing guidance, and working to keep them happy. Surrogates also require a vetting process that ensures that they don’t expose the campaign to unwanted vulnerabilities before they are publicly announced as someone who speaks for the campaign.

Trump’s campaign ran into trouble with their surrogates recently, when a pastor and televangelist who was supposed to demonstrate support for Trump from African American leaders came under fire for embellishing his resume and then handling the response badly. Shortly thereafter, the founder of the group Latinos for Trump, was widely lampooned for warning that unless something is done about immigration, the United States would have “taco trucks on every corner”.

In today’s media environment, even someone described as a “supporter” of a candidate, who has no affiliation with a campaign can cause problems, but in those cases the damage can be somewhat contained by making clear that there is no direct connection. But when someone is directly connected to a campaign, even if they are not an employee, the campaign can often be distracted by the need to respond for days, especially if there is a perception of strong ties to the candidate.

These cases demonstrate the need to carefully weigh the benefits that come from having someone speak for the campaign against the risks involved, while also putting in place a process that gives campaigns more control and the capability to respond effectively when something does go wrong. Some campaigns do this better than others, and that helps them avoid and mitigate distractions that divert attention from the message they want to present to the voting public.