On Tuesday I joined around 5,700 people who attended First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carmichael Arena. After nearly two hours waiting in line and another hour and a half standing on the arena floor listening to a band and introductory speakers, I watched the first lady deliver a speech rallying North Carolina supporters to vote early, volunteer with the campaign and encourage friends and family to support her husband. Hours later she was at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., for the second presidential debate to greet her husband at the end of the debate. In the less than 20 days left until Election Day, I expect Michelle Obama will be making numerous trips like she did on Tuesday to give speeches and appear at campaign events across the country, particularly in swing states.
And she won’t be the only one.
Under pressure to attract more media coverage and reach as many voters as possible, the presidential campaigns are turning to campaign surrogates — vice presidential candidates, presidential and vice presidential candidates’ wives and other political figures — to hit the campaign trail and supplement the presidential candidates’ appearances. While this trend is nothing new, the role of campaign surrogates has taken on increasing prominence and adapted to changing campaign strategies and technology. Surrogates, including candidates’ wives and other politicians, not only appear in person, but they also appear in advertisements, such as the Bill Clinton ad explaining Mitt Romney’s tax cut, which was promoted online by the Obama campaign last week. Their names are also used on campaign emails to attract funding and volunteers, and they often support the candidate on social media as well.
Even as the campaigns evolve, many of the advantages of campaign surrogates have remained largely the same as the ones outlined by Martha Stout Kessler in her analysis of surrogate speakers in the 1980 presidential campaign. According to Kessler, campaigns could avoid turning down speaking invitations by sending a surrogate when the candidate couldn’t make it. She argued other advantages included adding credibility to a campaign (especially if an individual was held in high esteem by certain audiences), raising funds, gaining local media coverage, saying things the candidates wanted to say but couldn’t say themselves for fear of backlash, and communicating the candidate’s position on issues to more people. Kessler noted that this last task was particularly important given the media’s tendency to focus less on issues and more on the horse race.
During the 2012 election, former president Bill Clinton has played a major role in President Obama’s re-election campaign and has proven many of the advantages of campaign surrogates identified by Kessler in 1980 still hold true today — particularly when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. For starters, the speech was praised by the media as one of the best (if not the best) speeches at both conventions as seen in Chris Cillizza’s rankings on The Washington Post website. According to a compilation of responses by Yahoo News, many voters responded favorably to the speech. One of the main things the campaign hoped to accomplish with Clinton’s speech (and his subsequent appearances and advertisements since then) was to add credibility to the Obama campaign where it needs it most — the economy. The Huffington Post’s article about the second night of the DNC hits on this point, explaining that as someone who still has high favorability ratings and a reputation as a strong financial president, Clinton boosts Obama’s reputation among audiences who question the president’s ability to improve the nation’s economy, including white men. Just as Kessler suggested in her 1980 analysis, as a surrogate, Clinton had more leeway to be cutting and negative in his attack of the Republican Party than President Obama, according to an article in The Atlantic. Clinton has continued to campaign for Obama and has done so in an expert way, illustrated by this video clip of a speech he gave in Las Vegas on Oct. 9, which The Atlantic’s James Fallows analyzed.
While I believe Clinton is the most valuable surrogate of the 2012 presidential election season, he is certainly not the only one. As I mentioned earlier, vice presidential candidates and candidates’ wives have also stepped up on the campaign trail. But unlike political figures, like Clinton, who have more flexible roles on the campaign tailored to their individual strengths and reputations, their appearances are often tailored to the role they are preparing to assume. According to Mark Rathbone’s article on the vice presidency, vice presidential candidates are typically chosen to complement a presidential candidate, in some cases fulfilling “the need to broaden the ticket’s experience, political appeal or regional balance.” For example, Paul Ryan adds youth to the Romney-Ryan ticket as he jokingly pointed out when discussing their different music tastes in part of his Republican National Convention Speech. In light of the budget he proposed as House Budget Chairman, Ryan was also chosen to rally the conservative base of the Republican Party. Rathbone’s analysis does not go in-depth about campaigning, but vice presidential candidates’ role on the campaign trail appears to reflect the reasons they were chosen for the ticket. Going back to Ryan, he has spoken at many fundraisers, such as one in Milwaukee, Wis., to fire up the GOP base in support of Romney and Republican candidates down the ballot.
Like vice presidential candidates, the roles of candidates’ wives as surrogates on the campaign trail have increased as the office of the first lady has gained more prominence. In an analysis of appearances by presidential and vice presidential candidates’ wives during the 2004 election, Susan MacManus and Andrew Quecan found that the campaigns frequently sent the wives to swing states, especially as Election Day neared. Their research also showed that the wives were most likely to appear at rallies meant to mobilize voters in the last two months of the campaign, which aligns with Michelle Obama’s appearance on Tuesday.
But as Karen O’Connor, Bernadette Nye and Laura Van Assendelft pointed out in their article, “Wives in the White House: The Political Influence of First Ladies,” first ladies are constrained by societal norms of traditional women’s roles — something vice presidents obviously don’t encounter. These constraints also exist for candidates’ wives during the campaign. As Jeffrey Alexander pointed out in his analysis of Michelle Obama in 2008 in The Performance of Politics, her role was to portray her husband as “a traditional husband and family man.” For Michelle Obama, she had a few moments where she had trouble walking the gender and family boundaries of a candidates’ wife, receiving criticism for comments and actions on the campaign trail, but, with a successful makeover, she stepped back into a traditional domestic role with a softer image and approach, Alexander wrote. Both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama have assumed this role during the 2012 election. Michelle Obama spoke about her husband’s values at UNC this week. Ann Romney skipped the news hour when she made her Good Morning America appearance, opting to cook Welsh cakes and talk about her love of horses. The women’s high favorability ratings might be a result of their emphasis on personal characteristics and values versus controversial policy positions.
As we enter the final days of the 2012 election season, I expect campaigns to continue to rev up appearances by the candidates and their surrogates — each stepping into their distinct roles — as in years past. The race to the finish line has begun.