Donald Trump appears to have a new favorite way to attack Hillary Clinton: her campaign schedule.
In the run-up to the first debate of the general election, Trump suggested on several occasions Clinton was sleeping instead of preparing for this past Monday’s showdown. At the debate itself, Trump questioned whether his opponent had the “stamina” to serve as president. And as he returned to the campaign trail this week, Trump mocked Clinton’s recent health episode, which sidelined her for a few days earlier this month.
“You see all the days off that Hillary Clinton takes?” Trump asked the audience at a Wednesday rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Day off. Day off. Day off. All those day offs, and then she can’t even make it to her car. Isn’t it tough? All those day offs. Right? Boom.”
It’s true that Trump has held more public events himself than Clinton this month. But as it turned out, Clinton was also on the road Wednesday, even though she probably could have afforded to take the day off if she wanted. In New Hampshire, Clinton was joined on the stump by her former rival Bernie Sanders, who fired up a crowd of mostly college students. And Michelle Obama held two rallies of her own in Pennsylvania that afternoon in support of the former secretary of state.
This week underscored the massive surrogate advantage Clinton holds over Trump as the campaign enters its final six weeks. Aside from the nine stops Clinton and Tim Kaine had on their schedule from Sept. 26-30, the first lady, Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Chelsea Clinton and Ann Holton, Kaine’s wife, were set to hold a combined 20 events. By comparison, Trump and Mike Pence had nine rallies slated between them this week, but the campaign didn’t announce any public events for their surrogates.
Surrogates have always played an important role in multiplying and amplifying a presidential candidate’s message, but in a 2016 election that features two deeply unpopular nominees, their impact could be even more pronounced. While Clinton as an all-star roster of Democrats at her disposal to make the case for her at rallies and on TV, Trump has still struggled to attract effective, high-profile Republican surrogates to his campaign, even as polls have showed the race tightening.
“It’s huge advantage for Clinton,” said Stuart Stevens, who served as the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “They have very specific constituencies. If you’re trying to do that for Trump, I don’t really know who you get. I think Trump is sort of in a Groundhog Day mode with these rallies.”
One of Clinton’s most significant problems this campaign has been mobilizing the minority and millennial voters that were instrumental to the president’s victories in 2008 and 2012. That’s where the Obamas themselves come in. Michelle Obama addressed this head on in Philadelphia on Wednesday, telling the crowd that “if you vote for someone other than Hillary, or if you don’t vote at all, then you are helping to elect Hillary’s opponent.” And Barack Obama recently gave a fiery speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which was featured in a TV adfrom the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, saying he would consider it a “personal insult” if they didn’t vote in November.
Biden, who like both Obamas, boasts a higher favorability rating than Clinton, can target a different slice of the electorate. The vice president has brought the campaign’s message on several occasions to working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio who might be considering supporting Trump. Clinton has also deployed Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to college campuses in New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania to dissuade young voters from casting their ballots for third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
“It’s not been Hillary Clinton’s campaign style to be an enthusiasm generator,” said Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts surveys forBloomberg Politics. “So if she can hand that part of the job off to somebody else, there’s an opportunity for her to get a little bit of that activity going, even when she herself isn’t necessarily the instigator of it.
Trump, meanwhile, is continuing to rely heavily on unconventional and untested surrogates. Many of those with political experience at his side, like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, had been out of national spotlight before the joining Team Trump. Others bring plenty of personal baggage. The Bridgegate trial is currently looming over Chris Christie, while the Trump campaign blasted out a statement on debate night from New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, who was found to have violated campaign finance laws last year. Trump has also campaigned alongside controversial celebrity figures like Bobby Knight and Don King, who dropped the N-word at a campaign event last week.
“He can’t be on every outlet and in every battleground himself every day,” Ben LaBolt, the president secretary for Obama’s 2012 campaign, said of Trump. “He’s someone who desperately needs to credentialed by experienced surrogates.”
Trump has turned to members of his family, many of whom spoke at the Republican National Convention, as well. His children have held a handful of solo campaign events and appeared in online ads and campaign emails, but most of their work has occurred behind the scenes.
Ivanka Trump, for instance, has met privately with lawmakers this month and attended a fundraiser in Chicago on Wednesday. But even with a net favorability rating of 19 percentage points, according to an August Gallup survey, she has only attended one rally with her father since the convention. Ivanka Trump has also cut down on her media appearances after a contentious interview with Cosmopolitan magazine.
For her part, Melania Trump has stayed out of the public eye after her address at the convention, which plagiarized sections of a 2008 Michelle Obama speech. Trump’s sons seem to have a penchant for controversy too. Donald Trump Jr. was harshly criticized earlier this month for tweeting an image comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles.
No matter how popular they are, there’s still only so much surrogates can do. Despite all the disadvantages Trump has faced, in this area and others, he remains within striking distance of Clinton 40 days out from the election.
“Ultimately, Barack Obama’s name will not be on the ballot. Newt Gingrich’s name will not be on the ballot,” Selzer said. “People are going to vote for the nominee or not.”