Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: Surrogates make us better


What is a surrogate?

For decades, a campaign surrogate meant the person who showed up at an event when the candidate was unavailable. Before ease of travel, the internet, digital appearances, and rapid travel, campaign surrogates were the only way for the public to get access to someone who could carry a message for a campaign while allowing the campaign to interact with the public.

Over time, campaign surrogates have changed. The DNA of a surrogate has altered to often focus around issue surrogates. Issue surrogates are known reputable leaders on specific issues who can represent a candidate to others with similar beliefs. This can be anything from union membership to the environment. These issue surrogates take on specific issues and carry the campaign message into those communities, lending their credibility while also allowing them to spot potential problems for the campaign and adjustments they might need to make in order to be the most effective with the supporters of that issue.

Small surrogates can be very effective

You don’t need to think of a campaign as reliant on the largest potential surrogate available. Someone running for the local city council rarely would need the endorsement of the governor. Surrogates who have time to represent you frequently and can be effective don’t need to have their own brand name. 

Surrogates are not present to represent themselves. They represent the candidate or elected official. If they can do that well, then the campaign and elected official are well served and they will use that surrogate more often. If the surrogate spends less time talking about the candidate or elected official and more time talking about themselves, they are likely not a great surrogate.

You need surrogates after an election

Don’t think for one second that after an election your need for a surrogate goes away. In fact, if you want your term in office to be successful, you need people who will work around you to promote the policy and agenda that you ran to implement. This is why using effective surrogates during a campaign helps build up a useful group of communicators you can call upon when you need them to make sure that you spread the word about your policies, and that help make sure your policies move beyond paper proposals to actionable plans for your community.

Surrogates are the tapestry of our nation and party

Finally, we forget that every candidate needs someone who can tell them what is going well and what just isn’t working within the community. Surrogates provide a filter that can make our campaigns and our government better. They provide perspective and a view of our country we would otherwise lose out upon.

In 1984, Jesse Jackson summed things up this way in his Rainbow Coalition speech:

America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up the American quilt.

No candidate or elected official can be everything to everyone. By recognizing we are a country of patches, of voices and needs, we give ourselves the best chance to talk to everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve while enabling our campaigns to win the votes needed to represent those voters by showing we earned the same consideration in return.

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