Surrogates' Mixed Messages Frustrate Campaigns With surrogates playing a more prominent role in this election year than in the past, governors, senators, spouses and former staffers now speak on behalf of their candidates every day of the week, via every channel imaginable. Managing who speaks about what has become a major task for the campaigns.
NPR logo

Surrogates' Mixed Messages Frustrate Campaigns

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Surrogates' Mixed Messages Frustrate Campaigns

Surrogates' Mixed Messages Frustrate Campaigns

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When there are many places a campaign would like to be, but only one candidate to go around, there is a well-worn device to make for multiple exposure — the surrogates.

If the candidates got to be in California, the spouse can go to Indiana, the respected senator or governor who endorsed the candidate can make the rally in New Jersey, and the trusted aide or the movie star can show the flag on cable. Surrogates are all over the place this year, sometimes notoriously so, invoking images of monsters or Judases.

(Soundbite of show "The Situation Room")

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (CNN Anchor): Judas, I mean, obviously, was a key figure. Do you think the Richardson endorsement is that important?

Mr. JAMES CARVILLE (Clinton Supporter): Well, I don't - I'm using a metaphor, if you will…

(Soundbite of political speech)

President BILL CLINTON: I think it could be a great thing if we had an election where you had two people who love this country, were devoted to the interests of…

General MERRILL McPEAK (Retired, U.S. Air Force; Obama Supporter): And I'm happy and proud to support a candidate who loves this country so much.

Ms. GERALDINE FERRARO (Clinton Supporter; Former New York Representative): It's because he is a black person, and the black community is so excited about this…

(Soundbite of show "The Colbert Report")

Ms. SAMANTHA POWER (Foreign Policy Expert): Can I just clarify and say, I don't think Hillary Clinton is a monster, and I get to be on television to say that. I…

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Talk Show Host): There's a way to make this positive.

SIEGEL: Obviously, wrangling surrogates is not always easy. It seems like we've been in the trading-pawns stage of the Democratic primaries. You've seen Obama sacrifices a Samantha Power; Clinton gives up a Geraldine Ferraro.

Joining us now are some people with experience at handling surrogates. Kevin Madden was national press secretary for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney and he worked on George Bush's 2000 campaign.

Welcome, Kevin.

Mr. KEVIN MADDEN (Mitt Romney's National Press Secretary): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And Jennifer Palmieri, who's at the Center for American Progress now, was national press secretary for John Edwards in 2004 and a senior adviser this time around.

Hiya. Good to see you again.

Ms. JENNIFER PALMIERI (Senior Vice President for Communications, Center for American Progress): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Kevin Madden first. We've heard some surrogates making news in not altogether helpful ways. Can you offer some guidance for surrogates and their handlers?

Mr. MADDEN: Well, I think, the first thing that you ask of surrogates is that they do no harm. You have to remember that you're out there to be an advocate for the candidate. You're out there to talk about the candidate's ideas, the candidate's campaign. You're not out there to be an analyst. And I think that's where a lot of the surrogates get in trouble, is that they feel like they're going to be out there and be a professional pundit. And your job is to, right before you're about to make a statement, ask yourself, is this going to do the candidate harm and B, am I being an analyst or an advocate?

SIEGEL: Jennifer Palmieri, it sounds like a fine line to tread because you're asking someone who has to be prominent enough in his or her own right to make it valuable to have them there, but not to be speaking in their own right.

Ms. PALMIERI: Right. I mean, the value, normally, is not on what the surrogate is going to say, but in the fact that they may draw people out and get the attention of people that would not otherwise pay attention to the candidate. So that is what the value is. And what you have to balance is it's convincing them that they should not make news. You know, what I will often say is, you know, you understand that the press will take anything you say and they will try to use it against you, and you just have to assume that that is what they're going to try to do to make them extra special, guarded.

And also, I think it's best to not say — you know, don't try to represent the candidate, tell people why you are for the candidate. And then, you might be better off. But as we heard in your montage that doesn't necessarily protects you.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about a particular kind of surrogate and your experiences — the spouse. I mean, how can the national press secretary, the campaign manager or whoever presume to tell surrogate number one, the spouse, what to say and what not to say?

Mr. MADDEN: Well, I mean, it's tough. I mean, we probably have similar experiences here, but I always thought that Elizabeth Edwards was somebody who is, you know, she was speaking for the candidate so often that you…

Ms. PALMIERI: Right.

Mr. MADDEN: It was very hard to - and she has - she's been through so many of these campaigns before that she was much, I think, much better of a surrogate than - now, Ms. Romney was a wonderful surrogate. I mean, she was somebody who was an incredible validator on the issues of family and the issues of exactly who Mitt Romney was. The challenge was here is somebody who's not used to dealing with the national media.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. MADDEN: So your task as a staffer is to really get them to a level of comfort where they have to understand that reporters are going to ask questions. And the hardest part from a staffer challenge was just going through, kind of, sample questions and getting them just very comfortable with the media.

Ms. PALMIERI: Now, Elizabeth's problem, of course, was she was too comfortable with the media.

Mr. MADDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PALMIERI: And Elizabeth, who is one of my very best friends, we had a lot of animated discussions about what she would say publicly. And I don't think - you don't want to over - you can't overly script them. I mean, the press tells when they're being fake or not being them.

Mr. MADDEN: Absolutely right.

Ms. PALMIERI: So you just have to, you know, give them as much guidance to try to stay in some parameters, and then also understand that they are the spouse.

SIEGEL: Did you find - Kevin, working with Mitt Romney this time around, and Jennifer, working with John Edwards, did you find that the media environment for campaigns and the demand for surrogates is different today than it's been in the past as the - are the media changing on you a lot?

Ms. PALMIERI: I think that they are. I think that, first of all, since the campaign is so long and the candidates go so many places, I think it's harder to get attention for surrogates than it used to be.

Mr. MADDEN: Except when they screw up.

Ms. PALMIERI: Except when they screw up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Which is deceptive right there because one could be out campaigning for a candidate assuming that you're well below the national radar, nobody pays attention to this radar…

Ms. PALMIERI: Right. I don't imagine…

SIEGEL: …until you're caught on somebody's cell phone.

Ms. PALMIERI: Right, I don't imagine that Geraldine Ferraro thought the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California was going to be the…

Mr. MADDEN: Or a Scotland newspaper.

Ms. PALMIERI: …the publication…

Mr. MADDEN: Or a Scotland newspaper…

Ms. PALMIERI: Right.

Mr. MADDEN: …was going to get a…

SIEGEL: The Scotsman.

Ms. PALMIERI: The Scotsman was going to…

SIEGEL: Samantha Power was giving an interview.

Mr. MADDEN: Right.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you, just a reality check. I was very struck - and judging from how often it's appeared on "Meet the Press," I assume Tim Russert was also very struck - by an appearance that Bill Bradley gave with Geraldine Ferraro actually on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," in which Bradley, speaking on behalf of Senator Obama, managed to get to the word - in calling for the release of all of Senator Hillary Clinton's papers, managed to get to the word pardons by the end of his statement. And my assumption, as a viewer, is he can't be freelancing when he said that. That he can't he just assume…

Ms. PALMIERI: Oh, yeah, he can.

SIEGEL: He can. He can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PALMIERI: They can absolutely be freelancing. I think - I mean, I think - I worked for the Clintons for eight years. I've been in politics for a long time. There's a lot of times that people assign conspiratorial motivations to — when people just screw up or when people take a license that they don't have. And it would not surprise me at all if that was…

Mr. MADDEN: Right. And I think that's a good point. I think oftentimes people believe that there's a subtext to every single text.


Mr. MADDEN: This is a discussion I have with reporters all the time. They always say, well, what did he mean by saying A, B and C? And I go, well, he probably meant A, B and C. There's not a conspiracy here. When you have somebody who's a prominent surrogate, you can use them as a conduit. You can use them as a delivery mechanism for your message and oftentimes promote them to say sorts of things that…

Ms. PALMIERI: But the higher the profile, the bigger the risks that…

Mr. MADDEN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Ms. PALMIERI: …that person is going to get - make a mistake and get a lot of attention for it.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you. Democrat Jennifer Palmieri and Republican Kevin Madden.

Mr. MADDEN: Great to be with you.

Ms. PALMIERI: Thanks for having us.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.