Back in 2006, Democrats were happy to have Hillary Clinton on the trail with them, but freshman Senator Barack Obama was the real hot ticket as a Democratic surrogate. Fresh off his successful 2004 convention speech and Senate victory, he provided Democratic voters with a message they were hungry for. The top surrogate for Republicans that year wasn't Pres. George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were deep underwater, but Sen. John McCain, the maverick who lost to Bush in the 2000 campaign. Two years later, McCain and Obama would go on to serve as the nominees for their party; an acknowledgement that their appeal in 2006 wasn't simply a fluke.
Fast forward to 2016, and the President is again politically toxic. This time, it's Democrats who are running as fast as they can from the titular head of their party. On the Republican side, Bush-era Republicans don't generate much enthusiasm from the GOP base. In fact, it's telling that two of the most popular surrogates on the campaign trail--Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democrats and Sen. Rand Paul for the Republicans--are both newbies to the national political scene. While they disagree on a whole lot of issues, they represent a similar yearning for a more populist, less regal (established) voice by both parties.
On its face, it seems counterintuitive that Warren, one of the most liberal Senators in the country, would be welcomed into swing and red states by Democratic candidates who are busy trying to separate themselves from President Obama. However, what Warren does is motivate a base that doesn't get all that much love from their own Senate nominees. As one Democratic strategist put it, Warren sends a very clear signal to liberals in these red states that while their Democratic nominee may be trying to distance him/herself from Obama, he/she is worthy of their vote. She is like a "progressive seal of approval." And, unlike Obama, Warren helps to motivate the base without scaring off more middle-of-the-road voters. This is not to say that red state voters embrace Warren's message, it's just that they simply don't know anything about her.
Hillary Clinton, busy with her book tour, hasn't parachuted into key battleground senate races, at least not yet. She is expected to be active in the midterm elections and, in talking to Democratic strategists around the country, it's clear that she will be welcomed by Democrats in these key red state battlegrounds. Not only is she a reliable fundraiser, but she can also help motivate core Democratic voters, especially African-Americans and Latinos.
The question now is, will Warren's success as a surrogate signal that she is the closest to where the base is? Back in 1994, according to the Pew's recent Political Polarization survey, 35 percent of Democrats said that most corporations make a "fair and reasonable profit." Today, just 27 percent of Democrats believe this--an eight-point drop. Also, back in 1994, 46 percent of Democrats thought that "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good." Today, less than one-third (30%) believe that.
On the stump, Warren invokes this new reality. Campaigning for Democratic senate candidate Natalie Tennant in West Virginia earlier this week, Warren said: "The way I see this, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, all those other guys on Wall Street, they’ve got plenty of folks in the United State Senate willing to work on their side. We need more people in the U.S. Senate willing to work on the side of America’s families.”
Warren is also scheduled to appear in Michigan on behalf of Democrat Gary Peters later this week. Warren has lauded Peters before, proclaiming in an email endorsement that "During the financial crisis, Gary was an important voice in Washington to keep Detroit from going bankrupt, and, as a member of the House Financial Service Committee, he took on Wall Street and fought for a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”
This isn't to say that Hillary Clinton can't find the pulse of the party, just that Warren is currently on it.
The same goes for Rand Paul. While many in the GOP establishment are calling him out as an isolationist and chicken hawk, his view of the threat of government overreach is more in tune with GOP base. The same Pew polarization study found that a whopping 75 percent of conservatives disapprove of the NSA collection of personal data. A June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that just 46 percent of Republicans thought the war in Iraq was "worth it." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Cheney legacy.
To be sure, a lot of the antagonism toward the NSA and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is as much due to dissatisfaction with the commander in chief as the policies themselves. That said, Paul is much closer to the pulse of the party on this issue than the former Vice President.
However, it will be interesting to see if Paul's other pet project--reaching out to a more diverse coalition of voters--is welcomed by the GOP base. Paul has made a concerted effort to reach out to African-American voters. He is working with liberal Democratic Senators to revamp mandatory sentencing laws on drug offenses that disproportionately disadvantage African Americans. However, the GOP itself is more resistant to the idea of the need for a "hand up" to the African-American community. Back in 1994, 66 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that "blacks who can't get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition." Ten years later, 79 percent of Republicans felt that way--a 13-point jump.
We've got a long way to go before 2016. But the fact that two relative newcomers who preach a message that is outside what we've long held as the established 'norms' of their respective parties are gaining so much traction is noteworthy. For any candidate hoping to win the nomination in 2016, listening to the current beat, not being content to stay on the same station, is going to be critical.