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Campaigning: A Family Affair

Posted: December 18, 2015 | By: Katherine Ramsey Tagged: From the Campaign Trail
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George P. Bush campaigning for his father, Jeb Bush, at Peggy’s Tavern in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Katie Ramsey

Peggy’s Tavern, a favorite college bar on Drake University’s campus, looked a little different Dec. 10 afternoon. Three big letters, J-E-B, brightened the usually shabby exterior. And, of course, the trademark exclamation point.

Jeb’s staff and supporters had taken over the bar in full force but the candidate wasn’t the main attraction today – it was his eldest son. George P. Bush was making the rounds for his dad, shaking hands and talking politics with the people of Iowa. His younger brother was on campus a few weeks before and his mother was at the HyVee down the street in Windsor Heights earlier that week.

The Bush family is hitting the campaign trail hard but they aren’t alone. It’s become a campaign staple to see family members on the road in early primary states. Beau Biden was a big fixture on his father’s campaign leading up to the 2008 election and Elizabeth Edwards was arguably more popular than her husband in 2004.

This election year is no different. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz is a formidable candidate with focus and drive on the campaign trail. But, recognizing that one person can only do so much, he’s brought his father and wife on board. The elder Cruz, Raphael, is an eloquent evangelical pastor who has spent considerable time on the campaign trail connecting with the evangelical base in Iowa and across southern states. Heidi Cruz is also a valuable addition to the campaign, who, with a career as successful as her husband’s, is able to soften his sharper edges.

However, there have been a few candidates whose families have been notably absent. Take Hillary Clinton. She has arguably the best surrogate of any candidate – her husband. Bill Clinton knows exactly how to behave on the campaign trail seeing as he’s done it rather successfully himself. Twice. But putting her husband in front of voters to speak on her behalf would only support the narrative she’s trying her hardest to break down – that she’s not running for her husband’s third term.

Or we could look at Donald Trump. He has a wife and a number of grown children, all of whom have kept pretty much to themselves save for a few appearances at a few debates. While his family is completely capable of campaigning for him, it might actually be in his best interest that they don’t. Because while it is useful to reach as many voters as possible, voters can only be reached by people they can connect with. And I don’t see Melania Trump being very comfortable on the Pizza Ranch circuit.

Families can be complicated but that is exactly why they are so important on the campaign trail. For some, they serve as potential weak spots, as campaigns place stress and attention on issues within the family unit that may already be brewing. But for others, they humanize candidates who are expected to perform with robotic precision on the road. Those who understand how to serve as surrogates allow one campaign to be in multiple places at once, contributing to the ultimate goal of winning more votes than the next guy (or girl).

KatieRamsey is a senior public relations major with a concentration in politics. She is a proud Iowan who watches too much SNL and is the only journalism student in recorded history without a coffee habit. Follow her on Twitter.