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Campaign Surrogates Could Swing Vote

Monday, November 1, 2004 at 12:54 PM

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Members of the Bush administration have been popping up in Ohio with increasing frequency this election year. They've handed out millions of dollars in grants and touted the government's policies on everything from the environment to the economy. Top government officials say the visits are part of their job. But in a presidential election, some political analysts believe, these visitors become campaign surrogates for the sitting President. And with race for president too close to call in Ohio, at least one analyst believes campaign surrogates could have enough impact to swing the vote. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

As the presidential campaign entered its final months, it seemed hardly a day went by without another appearance by a Cabinet leader or under-secretary somewhere in Ohio. A couple of weeks ago, U.S. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was in Cleveland to announce that Congress had approved funding for a barrier to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Although it’s been more than a year since his last visit, Leavitt said this was not a campaign stop.

Mike Leavitt: The President has made very clear that the Great Lakes are a priority. The President’s made clear he wanted this carp barrier and he wanted it built now. And we’re happy to announce it.

Officials with the White House press office and the Bush/Cheney Campaign say they don’t have an exact tally of how many such visits have been made to the state. But U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow has been to Ohio alone seven times since the beginning of the year. And dozens of other officials have visited as well. John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, says it’s politics as usual for an incumbent.

John Green: One of the things that all presidential administrations do is that they use public officials, members of the Cabinet and other members of the administration, to serve as surrogates for the President.

Green says such individuals go into states - particularly battleground states - to announce grants, discuss policy, and meet with local office holders. It’s convenient, he says, and perfectly legal.

John Green: In some sense these are individuals that are doing their jobs, but the doing of the job at the particular time and the particular place serves the additional purpose of furthering the president’s popularity and perhaps getting him elected.

Green says the practice of using surrogates is as old as the nation itself. And, he says, handing out money is usually a good way to get the attention of voters and the media.

Norman Mineta: Now in just a few minutes I’m going to make it official by signing the full funding grant agreement.

At last week’s groundbreaking for the long-awaited Euclid corridor project in Cleveland U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta presented a check for $80 million toward the project. The presentation was ceremonial. Professor Green says, like the Euclid corridor grant, most of the money that shows up in an election year was already in the pipeline.

John Green: Many of these things have been passed by Congress many months ago. Some of them are part of formulas, so that the funds would be available in the normal course of the operation of the government agency. But it is an opportunity for the administration to show off the good things that they’re doing for Ohio. And given how intense close the election is, probably every little bit helps.

Professor Green says it may be hard to measure what if any impact these campaign surrogates have on voters. Ohio Bush/Cheney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden believes most voters know about the practice, but few care.

Kevin Madden: It’s quite common during the ordinary sense and it’s quite common during an election year. I think probably the greater focus right now is turned by people in the media who are taking greater notice of that.

Madden admits administration visits do have an impact on voters’ pockets. He says while acknowledged campaign trips are paid for by the campaign, official visits come out of the White House budget and are paid for by taxpayers. Nicole Williams, Cleveland press secretary for the Ohio Kerry/Edwards campaign, says no matter who pays, she’s not concerned that voters may be swayed by surrogate visits.

Nicole Williams: We understand that that happens and what we do is, we don’t worry about that. What we worry about is getting our message out. If we tried to go tit for tat with the administration about their trips and which are campaign trips and which are not campaign trips, we wouldn’t be focusing on the real needs of the community.

Williams says in fact Democrats have sent a number of their own surrogates to Ohio this year, among them Al Sharpton and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans Professor John Green says voters should be aware they are being manipulated.

John Green: It’s quite possible for the visits of these surrogates and the different things they talk about to make a difference in a very close election. These surrogates largely have small impacts in particular areas. But in an election as close as this one, it’s quite possible that such a visit would sway just enough votes and bring just enough people to the polls to make a difference on November 2nd.

And Green says while Republicans have the advantage of a sitting president in this election year, next time that advantage could belong to the Democrats. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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