WATERLOO, Iowa—If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. If you want a campaign surrogate while you’re stuck in an impeachment trial in Washington, do the same thing—just make sure that he doesn’t accidentally knock any potential supporters over.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign worked hard to keep that from happening when one of the Massachusetts senator’s most popular surrogates—her 18-month-old golden retriever, Bailey—visited her campaign’s field office in northeastern Iowa, as Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann, encouraged the crowd of volunteers, organizers, and dog fans to let the dog burn off some excess energy.
“As you can see, it is all paws on deck,” Mann told the crowd, apparently unfazed that he and Warren’s son, Alex, were not greeted, as Bailey was, by campaign organizers chanting their names. “While Elizabeth is doing her constitutional duty in Washington, she has a lot of people, and a couple of dogs, standing in for her.”
As volunteers played with Bailey on the floor, Mann noted that within 24 hours of the dog’s arrival in Iowa last Friday, the Des Moines Register had endorsed Elizabeth.
“You be the judge: correlation or causation,” Mann said. “But I think Bailey is a natural closer.”
Warren’s campaign isn’t the only one hoping that a fleet of flashy, moving, or influential surrogates can help shore up support or win over wobbly voters in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. With three of the five top-polling candidates mired in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, campaign surrogates have become more important than ever for the Democrats hoping to win next week in Iowa—even for the candidates who aren’t imprisoned on Capitol Hill.
But even setting aside the photogenic canine’s obvious advantages, not all campaign surrogates are created equal—and not all campaigns appear to have deployed their head cheerleaders when they need them the most.
Warren’s campaign has made good use of Bailey to perk up weary campaign organizers and volunteers, similar to how certain liberal arts colleges will put a playpen of puppies in the library during Finals Week to keep overworked students from bursting into tears. But the job of winning over undecided caucus-goers has been taken most effectively by Julián Castro, Warren’s former rival for the Democratic nomination and another progressive rising star who is more than happy to take the reins as a champion of “big, structural change.”
Speaking in front of two dozen students and professors at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Castro told the story of a visit he made to a trailer park in Waukee, Iowa, where a 90-year-old resident told him about attempts by the park’s new owners to dramatically raise her rent. When Castro asked the woman if any other presidential hopefuls had visited the park, the woman responded that one other candidate was trying to help: Elizabeth Warren.
“To me, that was a very fitting example of the kind of leader she is: thoughtful, inclusive, focused not on the people that already have high-powered lawyers and lobbyists to write their legislation but on the people who really need a fighter,” the former housing and urban development secretary told the crowd. “That’s what you want in someone who holds the most powerful office in the land—somebody that’s not concerned about the big money and who gave the most of the campaign… but how are the people that you’re there to serve being served.”
While Castro embraced the role of “attack dog” during his own campaign, famously questioning former Vice President Joe Biden’s memory and repeatedly dogging former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg about his dismal performance among African American voters in early-state polls. Castro’s remarks on Wednesday were exclusively focused on priming the pump for Warren, blending policy and personal observations in a way that few but a former rival for the nomination could do.
Castro’s enthusiastic embrace of Warren as the “unity candidate” comes at a moment when the progressive wing of the Democratic Party they both represent is increasingly at its own throat—and when Warren could use a cheerleader. After Warren confirmed multiple reports that Sen. Bernie Sanders had told her that he didn’t believe a female nominee could defeat Trump in a general election, saying she had been “disappointed” by his remarks, Sanders called the claims “ludicrous,” sparking an acrimonious battle between supporters of the two campaigns that has yet to be completely resolved.
Castro’s upbeat speech was well received by the students at Cornell, many of whom expressed a desire for the one-time mayor of San Antonio to be Warren’s running mate.
“I’m a politics-Spanish major, I like wonky politicians—like, I’m a nerd,” said Oliver Trousdale, a Cornell College student from Hanover Park, Illinois, who pointed to Castro’s exchange with Beto O’Rourke in which he called for treating illegal border crossings as a civil violation rather than criminal offense. Trousdale’s partner is an undocumented immigrant, they added, “so seeing that and seeing like him, like, hold his ground and not give in to a lot of the nonsense was definitely a big deal for me.”
Other campaigns, however, still seem to be finding their footing on the thoughtful deployment of surrogates.
On Tuesday, Chasten Buttigieg—a hugely in-demand figure for LGBT events and fundraisers for husband Pete Buttigieg’s campaign—played only a small role in a trio of town halls in the Hawkeye State, shaking hands and taking selfies with supporters at a rope line in Indianola. Earlier, at an event in Osceola, he sat quietly, occasionally texting, through most of his husband’s stump speech, just feet away from a young man wearing a “Chasten for First Gentleman” pin.
At a “Women for Biden” house party in Ankeny on Monday evening, Valerie Biden Owen’s warm-up remarks ahead of the headliner—Dr. Jill Biden, the former vice president’s spouse—ran longer than Dr. Biden’s herself. At a “Pride for Biden” event at The Blazing Saddle, one of Des Moines’ two gay bars, two days later, Dr. Biden’s speech about her husband’s long history of support for LGBTQ communities was well received by some attendees.
“She’s dynamic, she’s smart, she’s passionate,” said Jill Nash of Tiburon, California, who was accidentally introduced by the bar’s owner as the eponymous former second lady. “Those, I think, are winning combinations on a campaign.”
But figure skating legend Michelle Kwan, who was also at The Blazing Saddle to support Biden, didn’t make any public remarks, despite her presence eliciting the single most enthusiastic response this reporter has ever witnessed from local Tim Mooney, a patron who had no idea that the Biden campaign was hosting an event.
“MICHELLE KWAN! OH MY GOD! GET OUT OF HERE! OH MY GOD!” Mooney shouted, before recounting Kwan’s entire illustrious career to her in encyclopedic detail. “This is a great honor—you’re one of the greatest figure skaters who’s ever LIVED!”
Mooney, who lives in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood, told The Daily Beast that Michelle Kwan notwithstanding, he does not plan to caucus on Monday because he finds the process too confusing—although he said that if he heard the two-time Olympic medalist speak, he would consider it.
“Yeah, Michelle Kwan would probably do it for me,” Mooney said. “Other than that, it would take a lot of convincing because I have no idea of what I’m gonna do with anybody else.”
(Upon hearing this, another patron leaned over to explain how the admittedly confusing caucus process works.)
Without question, the candidate with the most impressive slate of surrogates is Sanders. This week alone, the senator will be repped at the stump by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, indie rock band Vampire Weekend, and folk staple Bon Iver. But Iowans who queued up to meet their favored candidate’s hype-man (or dog) told The Daily Beast that, for the most part, star power still takes a backseat to the issues that matter every day to them.
“I got introduced to Elizabeth via a couple of guys who came door-to-door,” Jerri Iehl, a 61-year-old former newspaper editor, told The Daily Beast as Bailey played behind her. Iehl said she had struggled with health issues after she was prescribed a medication that has since received a “black box” label for potentially dangerous side effects, which “ruined seven years of my life.” It was Warren’s plan for reforming the pharmaceutical industry, Iehl said, that brought her to the Waterloo campaign office—even though Bailey sweetened the deal.
“They’re part of the family and, maybe, our next president and first man and first dog, you know? That’s important!” Iehl said. “I’m not gonna probably make it to the White House, so might as well meet ’em here.”