In Iowa’s Surrogate War, Clinton Unleashes an Army

DUBUQUE, IOWA — Bethany Golombeski is an architect, a mother and an undecided Democratic voter, and she had not been to a single candidate event so far this presidential cycle.

That was until Golombeski made time to see Bill Clinton.

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“I’ve always been a fan of Bill’s,” she told NBC News while keeping an eye on the 42nd president, hoping to shake his hand on the ropeline. “He’s so smart…I’ve always admired him.”

And just as intended, Hillary Clinton's husband’s pitch helped move the needle for this likely caucus-goer.

“I really like Bernie [Sanders]…I love the fact that he is what he is and he’s always been Bernie,” Golombeski explained. “But after hearing what Bill had to say today about all of the things that Hillary did in the background the last 40 years, that was really impressive to me because I didn’t know any of that before.”

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More than any other campaign from either party, Hillary Clinton has flooded Iowa with star-powered surrogates ahead of the February 1 caucuses.

From pop singer Katy Perry, to writer and actress Lena Dunham, to former president Bill and daughter Chelsea Clinton, the candidate's bench of surrogates has been deep and omnipresent.

But as recent polls show a tightening race between Sanders and Clinton in Iowa, the question remains if the latter campaign’s army of surrogates can help seal the deal with caucus-goers for the Democratic frontrunner.

The Clinton Surrogate Army

Over the penultimate weekend before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton fans had the option to see eight different surrogates at nearly 30 events across the state. And that's not to mention several events headlined by the candidate herself.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker energized a crowd in Marion, Iowa on Sunday, shouting for Iowans to stand with him in supporting Hillary Clinton. Just ahead of the big weekend, pop singer Demi Lovato literally sang her praise for Clinton in Iowa City, calling her one of the most “confident” women she knows.

"The real benefit of having celebrity surrogates is that they do tend to attract new people that potentially wouldn’t normally come out for your run-of-the-mill political event,"explained Brad Anderson, a Clinton supporter and the Iowa state director for President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012.

“Especially younger people,” Anderson continued.

It's a tactic that certainly worked for some at the Lovato concert.

“Going to see Hillary is great but seeing that Demi Lovato was going to be here was a real eye-catcher,” one young Clinton supporter told NBC News after the concert-campaign event.

Recent polling shows that Clinton lags behind Sanders in Iowa when it comes to support of voters 45 and younger, and the campaign hopes that surrogates such as Lovato, Perry and Dunham can draw this demographic and others out to hear the campaign’s message.

“When Katy Perry was here, there were some folks who came to the concert because they were big Katy Perry fans. There were some folks who came to the concert because they’re big Hillary Clinton fans. We want to talk to all of them,” a Clinton aide told NBC News.

The campaign believes such high profile proxies can boost enthusiasm for the candidate ahead of the caucuses.

"The energy and enthusiasm in the room [at the Lovato concert] for Hillary Clinton was electric, and we were thrilled to have Demi Lovato campaign and perform in support of Hillary's candidacy,” said Adrienne Elrod, director of strategic communications and surrogates for the Clinton campaign.

With more high profile surrogates hitting all parts of the state, less pressure is put on the candidate to be everywhere at all times while keeping media attention high across Iowa.

One Friday in January while Hillary Clinton was out of the state, Bill Clinton stumped in the northwest city of Sioux City, while Senators Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, Amy Klobuchar and Claire McCaskill held an organizing event in the northeast city of Dubuque.

“Surrogates serve as an important stand in when the candidate is unable to be in the state at any particular time,” asserted Tim Albrecht, a long time Republican Iowan operative. “It can get you additional media hits and it gives supporters and information seekers a validator for that candidate.”

But putting such an emphasis on a candidate's quantity of surrogates can have a downside as well.

The Challenges of a Surrogate Army

While holding dozens of events for surrogates and the candidate at the same time flexes the muscles of a healthy ground game in Iowa, the reality is that too many proxies can present challenges to campaigns.

“Keep in mind, when you bring in a surrogate it does devote campaign staff, time, energy, and resources when they might otherwise be on the phone talking about a candidate to undecided caucus-goers,” Albrecht pointed out.

Caucuses Vs. Primaries: Winning Iowa Isn't Always a Good Thing 2:03

Furthermore, between the never-ending bombardment of televisions ads, callers, door-knocking, regular candidate events and surrogate events, it is easy for fatigue to set in among Iowans.

Anderson noted that the state is often “saturated” with surrogates—especially closer to the general election—and campaigns often rely on people who are already supporting the candidate to fill a proxy event.

At that point caucus-goers can start "rolling their eyes that they have to got to another event,” surmised Anderson.

And many experts agree that in Iowa, not all surrogates are created equal.

“It’s a delicate balance,” observed Albrecht on placing surrogates strategically. “Sometimes there’s a surrogate that plays extremely well in New Hampshire and not Iowa."

“There are some surrogates that are more of a burden to a campaign than an asset,” said Anderson, arguing that sometimes “random" elected officials from out of state are not as impactful as those who are closest to the candidate.

“Clearly when it comes to family members, they’re an asset,” added Anderson.

Family Matters

Several candidates across parties have relied on their family members as surrogates. Senator Ted Cruz’s father Rafael Cruz took many trips to Iowa in 2015, speaking in churches and private homes on behalf of his son.

Sanders—who recently announced actress and political activist Susan Sarandon will act as a surrogate for him in Iowa this week—has also leaned on family, having his wife Jane hold events for supporters ahead of February 1.

“But when you’ve got a former President of the United States, it’s really tough to beat that as a surrogate,” Anderson noted.

Clinton’s most influential proxy, her husband Bill Clinton, has already made a number of stops in Iowa during January, and will stump this Wednesday ahead of the caucuses while Hillary Clinton herself is out of the state to raise money.

When in Iowa, the former president often draws out adoring fans and large amounts of cars bearing bumper stickers that read “Bernie.”

These star-powered gatherings, which often bring out people who do not support Hillary Clinton, can be one of the biggest opportunities for Clinton’s team to identify likely caucus-goers who might be persuadable come caucus night.

Once inside events with the former president, Clinton volunteers flock to all attendees regardless of their preference, asking if they might be swayed to sign a commit to caucus card for Clinton.

But for all the effort, many stalwarts are not easily convinced.

While Golembeski began to lean towards caucusing for Hillary Clinton after the Dubuque event, Bob Wild—also from Dubuque—would not be budged.

Wild waited in line in cold sleet for about an hour just to see the 42nd president, but told NBC News repeatedly that he would only caucus for Sanders.

When asked why he came out knowing he would never caucus for Clinton, Bob said gleefully, “Just because he’s Bill!"