As the Obama and Romney campaign engines kick into high gear for these final days before the election, everywhere you look are politicians, pundits, and celebrities speaking not just in praise of the candidates, but on behalf of them. They’re in the “spin rooms” at the debates, on the Sunday morning talk shows, and out on the campaign trail. Notably, these ubiquitous folks are no longer referred to as plain old backers of the candidate. In 2012, these people are “surrogates.”
The job of surrogates is to make special-interest pleas, to do the partisan sniping that the candidates themselves might want to avoid, and to allow the candidates to spread their messages widely. And some indubitably have approval from the top to do just that. The omnipresent Bill Clinton has come to be known as Obama’s “surrogate-in-chief.” Likewise, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is tagged as a surrogate on talk-show appearances, surely the Romney campaign has given him the green light.
But what about people less likely to be working in concert with the candidates, but whose remarks the opposing campaign might simply like to pin on them? When Hilary Rosen, a lobbyist and Democratic pundit, said on CNN in April that Ann Romney “has never worked a day in her life,” the Romney campaign worked overtime to brand Rosen an Obama surrogate. Nothing would make Democrats happier, meanwhile, than to cast rocker Ted Nugent, who has used ultraviolent language in denouncing Obama, as a trusted Romney surrogate — as Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has described him. Los Angeles Times opinion writer Jon Healey took issue with that characterization. “Just because someone given to spewing cartoonish hatred endorses a candidate,” Healey wrote, “that doesn’t make him a ‘surrogate’ or a representative of any kind.”
Why are we calling people “surrogates” who in past years would have been known as “supporters”? It’s not just a change in label, after all: The words have fundamentally different roots and associations. And the shift from the straightforward “supporter” to the more loaded “surrogate” says a lot about how the political game has evolved.
The word “surrogate” has its roots in classical Latin: The verb surrogare or subrogare originally meant “to put in the place of someone else,” as when new elected officials were substituted for old ones. In the very first monolingual dictionary of English, Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 “A Table Alphabeticall,” “surrogate” is defined as “a deputy in another’s place.” But until recently, speaking out in favor of a candidate didn’t make you a surrogate: It made you an “advocate,” a “supporter,” a “partisan,” or a “booster.”
How did “surrogate” become, well, a surrogate for these other terms? We owe the word’s modern campaign usage to Richard Nixon, and, of all people, a talented wordsmith who worked for him: William Safire. “In the Nixon campaign of 1968,” Safire later wrote in his “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine, “we were looking around for an important-sounding word for the person who was asked to stand in for the candidate on occasions not important enough for the presence of the candidate himself.” The staffers shot down various alternatives: “substitute was pejorative; pinch-hitter, too informal; stand-in, too theatrical. But surrogate sounded vaguely legal and dignified, and we went with it.”
An Aug. 17, 1968, article in The New York Times explained that “the ‘surrogate’ device is intended to take some of the crushing burden of campaigning off Mr. Nixon himself and permit him to concentrate on key states.” In a sense, having surrogates instead of plain old supporters meant a replicant-like power to be everywhere at once. And some of these body doubles would go on to their own starring roles. Among Nixon’s original surrogates were California Governor Ronald Reagan, Texas Congressman George H.W. Bush, and Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld.
In one case, two Nixon surrogates even produced a child who would one day need his own stand-ins. In Nixon’s reelection campaign against George McGovern in 1972, two highly effective surrogates were none other than Mitt Romney’s parents. George Romney, then secretary of housing and urban development, was a top Nixon surrogate that year; Mitt’s mother, Lenore Romney, was also seen as a valuable surrogate, both as the former first lady of Michigan and because of her own political experience running for the US Senate in 1970. (After a falling out with Nixon that summer, the Romneys’ surrogacy was curtailed.)
Even then, the “surrogate” label was not entirely cut and dry. The Washington Post noted that there were 35 official surrogates for Nixon, but countless others who spoke for him less formally. The Post referred to these unofficial Nixon speakers as “non-surrogates.”
Four decades later, no one bothers to separate official surrogates from non- or quasi-surrogates. In this media-heavy age, it’s clear why the candidates would want campaign proxies that let them essentially have more than one conversation at a time. But the shift toward thinking of nearly any partisan as a “surrogate” rather than the old-fashioned “supporter” is emblematic of a deeper confusion in the political sphere. As Super PACs create a blizzard of new spending that helps Obama or Romney without technically coordinating with their campaigns, who can tell what speech is authorized by a candidate and what is not?
The victim, of course, is the voter, who is left with a welter of claims and counterclaims about the candidates’ positions, with no easy way to determine who speaks for whom. It might not be surprising that we’re suddenly watching a free-for-all in which anyone can be said to be channeling the candidate. But it certainly makes for a bewildering race.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached