Even then, the “surrogate” label was not entirely cut and dry. The Washington Post noted that there were 35 official surrogates for Nixon, but countless others who spoke for him less formally. The Post referred to these unofficial Nixon speakers as “non-surrogates.”
Four decades later, no one bothers to separate official surrogates from non- or quasi-surrogates. In this media-heavy age, it’s clear why the candidates would want campaign proxies that let them essentially have more than one conversation at a time. But the shift toward thinking of nearly any partisan as a “surrogate” rather than the old-fashioned “supporter” is emblematic of a deeper confusion in the political sphere. As Super PACs create a blizzard of new spending that helps Obama or Romney without technically coordinating with their campaigns, who can tell what speech is authorized by a candidate and what is not?
The victim, of course, is the voter, who is left with a welter of claims and counterclaims about the candidates’ positions, with no easy way to determine who speaks for whom. It might not be surprising that we’re suddenly watching a free-for-all in which anyone can be said to be channeling the candidate. But it certainly makes for a bewildering race.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com andVocabulary.com. He can be reachedat benzimmer.com/contact.