All surrogates are not created equal. Sometimes, surrogates can bring both political savvy and celebrity to the table, and candidates have different needs at different times. When Clinton wanted to bring gun control to the fore of national debate, she brought mothers whose children were killed by gun violence on the trail. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the Sanders campaign dispatched big names like Killer Mike and Cornel West in lieu of politicians. Kasper said Trump could find both his celebrity and political surrogates helpful going into November: the celebrities, because they might appeal to disaffected voters, and the politicians, because they might help him court the traditional Republican voters he needs to win.
Potential first ladies are often deployed to help Americans see their mate through their presumably affectionate eyes. Ditto candidates’ children. Other individuals can be used to target a particular community of voters or speak to a specific policy area, said Lara Brown, the program director for George Washington University’s graduate-level political-management program. If House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, were to endorse Hillary Clinton, she could “attest” to Clinton’s credibility with women and girls, Brown said, because she is ostensibly knowledgeable about those communities’ issues.
The potency of surrogates from the political world can depend on “how close that surrogate is to either the candidate or how high up they are within the party,” Brown said. When President Obama stumps on the trail for his party’s nominee, it will matter “because he’s not only the sitting president, but he’s essentially the titular head of the party,” she said. Celebrity surrogates have different advantages: They can help campaigns attract eyeballs and event crowds, Kasper suggested, particularly among younger or disengaged voters. They are typically more effective at raising money than lending issue-specific gravitas, Brown suggested; they are not as helpful as, say, an elected official in the policy arena. A few have it all: Former President Bill Clinton hits three surrogate categories, as a political spouse, fluent policy wonk, and celebrity in his own right.
Even when surrogates try to stay on-message, though, they can make unintended mistakes. In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s congressional surrogates have had difficulty defending or explaining his ideas in interviews, MSNBC reported, because his “day-to-day pronouncements are unpredictable and frequently controversial.” Some voters bristled at Clinton surrogate Madeleine Albright’s suggestion earlier this year that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” And Susan Sarandon, a Bernie Sanders surrogate, took criticism for her Bernie-or-bust stance.
Surrogates’ ill-advised utterings have long distracted campaigns. “When a surrogate errs, the mistake tends to reflect on the competency and values of the campaign and, by implication, the ability of the candidate to govern,” The New York Times reported in 1989, referring to a dust-up in Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaign. The comedian Jackie Mason had said something offensive about Jewish voters, and Giuliani himself had to answer for it. “It's a low-budget way of getting attention, but it’s a high-risk strategy because you're held responsible for what your surrogates say and do,” the Democratic political adviser Richard Moe said at the time.