Here Come the Surrogates
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — We are just over three months away from the 2020 Iowa precinct caucuses, which means that now is crunch time for presidential campaigns. In the final few months before Iowa, campaigns are going to continue investing in their field operations in the state and expanding and strengthening their existing networks of activists, supporters, and donors across the state.
One marker of these final laps before February 3 is the influx of campaign surrogates: influential party activists, leaders, and talking heads who will descend on Iowa to make renewed calls for Iowans to jump aboard a campaign. Atlanta, Ga., Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is one of those campaign surrogates and she began her pitch to Iowa caucus-goers as the guest of honor at a West Des Moines field office opening for former Vice President Joe Biden this past weekend. Mayor Bottoms endorsed the former vice president in June and lauded his criminal justice plan as one of the reasons she believes we need a President Biden.
Fellow Iowa Caucus Project staffer Adam Koch and I hopped in the car as we went to see what exactly brought Mayor Bottoms to Iowa and to find out what role surrogates play in the 2020 race. When we arrived, there was a small group of Iowans, some of them staff and others loyal supporters, ready to welcome a new field office to their community. On the wall that faced the door, there were paper hearts, each with a reason why that person supports Joe Biden. On another wall was a group of four black-and-white posters with text separated by thick black lines. HOPE was written over the word FEAR, TRUTH over LIES, UNITY over DIVISION, and SCIENCE over FICTION. All of the decorations and items in the office pointed to one purpose—electing Joe Biden president of the United States.
One of the attendees was Melanie Weatherall, a recent Iowa transplant and dedicated Biden “superfan.” Weatherall was easy to spot when she walked in as she wore a sequined and bedazzled denim jacket with Joe Biden buttons and red flowers all over it. She also wore a custom-made camouflage hat that read “Vote 4 Joe Biden” in small rhinestones.
As I walked up to Weatherall I told her that she must be Biden’s biggest fan. She shrugged my comment off and simply told me that she was just doing what she knew was right. But before I could speak further with Weatherall, Mayor Bottoms began her remarks.
Bottoms explained her history in Atlanta and how her father’s incarceration led to her to support Vice President Biden and his criminal justice plan. She also cracked jokes and worked to energize the crowd in support of the former vice president. At one point, she was asked by an audience member whether she would consider being Biden’s running mate and she responded by saying that she would be honored to be asked and that she would certainly consider it.
Once Bottoms concluded her remarks, I turned back towards Melanie Weatherall for her impressions. “I really enjoyed the mayor of Atlanta’s message. For her to support Joe Biden, that’s awesome and I feel the same way that she does,” said Weatherall. When I pressed Weatherall about why she likes Biden she told me that she likes his personality and that she believes that he genuinely wants to help this country. “He came in [to the race] because the president that we have now is a racist and a mess. We used to say, ‘Oh come on kids, the president’s on!’ Now we don’t say that we turn the TV off,” she explained.
This rhetoric has been echoed by Bottoms in her remarks. Both Bottoms and Weatherall wanted a president who they felt they could be proud of. When I asked Weatherall about the policies that she is concerned about, she told me that she wanted to see the Affordable Care Act defended and Medicaid further expanded. “I had to move all the way from Texas to Iowa just to stay alive,” she told me, referencing the Texan government’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion.
Once I finished my interview with Weatherall, she excitedly approached Mayor Bottoms for a photo and a chance to speak with the mayor. And it was in Weatherall that you could see why campaigns bring in surrogates to campaign on their behalf. Weatherall felt especially moved by the message that Bottoms had about why she endorsed Biden.
But Bottoms isn’t the sort of Democratic figure who has mainstream, national name recognition. And yet, she is still important in this race. Bottoms is the mayor of a major Southern city with a substantial Black population in an increasingly purplish state. And when considering the importance of the Black vote to the Democratic coalition, it becomes clear that Bottoms’ endorsement signals something about Biden’s campaign and his message.
Surrogates are a lot like endorsers in this way: they lend credibility to a candidate. And often time, those same elected officials who endorse a candidate also then become surrogates for them. Surrogates allow a presidential campaign to offload the incredibly busy pace of a candidate’s schedule and also allow a campaign to more effectively target certain groups. In this case, the Biden campaign, which is heavily reliant on Black voters, was able to pull in a figure who could help engage that community in support of Biden.
Other surrogates have also been to Iowa and other early states: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, is known for having the support of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock has had Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller campaign for him as well.
As we enter the final stretch of the race to Iowa, campaigns aren’t only preparing for the Iowa caucus but also for other early states like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, all of which will vote or caucus soon after Iowa. The increasingly demanding schedule of the campaign can be lessened by having surrogates attend events in a candidates’ place and it can also help a candidate win over voters at the margins.
With the Biden campaign’s current Iowa polling being at or below U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, it becomes clear that these sorts of investments in surrogates could help the campaign maintain energy in the state in advance of the caucuses.