ON INTERSTATE 93 — The sedan is purring, snacks are packed, and the radio is tuned to classic light rock at a modest volume. The Lincoln Chafee 2016 presidential campaign is rolling into New Hampshire.
The candidate is driving. Why not? It’s his car.
And when your poll numbers in the Democratic primary are smaller than the margin of error, you don’t need a driver. What you need are more supporters, though finding them doesn’t seem to be the priority of the moment.
Arriving about a hour early for an appointment at the Concord Monitor, the candidate isn’t looking for palms to press. Instead, he stops for a picnic in a back corner of the newspaper parking lot.
“We’ll find a shady spot and kill some time,” says Chafee, a former senator and Rhode Island governor. “Have a snack. That’s what I like to do.”
He knocks back a Polar seltzer and a Kellogg’s breakfast bar, then strolls to the edge of the woods and discovers a streambed. “Must get rip-roaring with the snow melt,” he says, with enthusiasm for nature. A yellow leaf has snagged in his hair.
Chafee, 62, is known in Rhode Island politics as principled, if a little quirky; a politician who sometimes dances to drumbeats nobody else can hear. He speaks often about being the only Republican senator to oppose the Iraq war. After losing reelection in 2006, Chafee left the GOP, which he says had drifted too far right for his comfort. He was elected governor as an independent, served one term, and left office in January.
He has a reserved, even bashful manner on the campaign trail, not given to slapping backs. In seeming not to go out of his way to meet individual voters, he appears as if he doesn’t want to bother people.
Traveling with Chafee and longtime aide Debbie Rich is like watching two old pals on a road trip adventure. Rich, 62, a former radio reporter, started work for Chafee in 1997, when he was mayor of Warwick, R.I., and held posts in his Senate office and State House administration.
Back on the road later that afternoon one of them remembers a Friendly’s restaurant nearby — maybe to the west?
“The sun is setting in the west,” Chafee says. “We’re heading west.”
“You’re the one with the good sense of direction,” Rich says.
“Louie Louie,” by The Kingsmen, comes on the radio.
“I got caught with the dirty lyrics to this song in sixth grade,” Rich volunteers.
Chafee lowers his voice and pretends to scold her, “Debeeeee!”
Some recent national surveys peg Chafee’s support at 1 percent. In others he is yet to break out from zero.
Zero percent? Doesn’t that kind of stink?
It does, Chafee agrees. “At this stage it’s a lot of name recognition. Not getting invited on the Sunday shows makes it harder.”
Despite low poll numbers, Chafee did qualify to participate in a national CNN debate Oct. 13 in Las Vegas, and will be on stage with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other candidates who achieved an “average of 1% in three polls” recognized by CNN between Aug. 1 and Oct. 10, according to the network.
Campaigning by sedan means he can visit the nation’s first primary state by day and sleep in his own bed at night. Or most nights. Not during his three car trips to Iowa, home of the first caucus. “We usually stop on the way because I need to be sharp for the event I’m attending,” he says of the 20-hour drive. “It’s tough to sleep in the car.”
He drives because it’s cheaper.
“Trying to live within a budget,” explains Chafee, who put $363,000 into his campaign, according to filings, and intends to stretch it until the first nominating contests in February.
“I feel passionate about my issues,” he says. “I want to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire within these parameters.”
His issues are foreign policy.
“I’m very concerned about what’s going on in the Middle East and North Africa. I was right about the Iraq war. I want to be part of the debate. The Democratic Party should have this debate.”
His June campaign announcement was packed with what he thought were provocative statements: It is time to allow Edward Snowden to come home. Let’s end US drone strikes. But instead of backlash, he got nothing.
“Not a syllable,” he said.
Instead, coverage of his speech focused on his call for the United States to go metric, a paragraph he almost left out because he thought — correctly, it turned out — it could become “a punch line.”
Two hours before an evening candidates’ forum in Sandown, the campaign gives up on finding that Friendly’s and settles in at the Lobster Q restaurant in Hampstead, N.H.
Small world: Into the restaurant walk Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — Ben & Jerry, the ice cream guys. They are surrogates for the Sanders campaign, speaking for Sanders that night at the Sandown forum.
Rich wonders if Ben and Jerry would pose with her for a photo. Sure they would! Jerry wants to hug her. He’s a hugger.
On the way out, Chafee glides past several people hanging out in the restaurant bar. Rich clues the locals about the guy who just left: “Senator Chafee from Rhode Island. Running for president.”
“Oh,” a couple of people say, watching Chafee out the window.
On the drive to the forum, the conversation is on Ben and Jerry.
“I bet they’re bringing ice cream,” Rich says.
“Competition is tough,” Chafee says wryly.
Rich reads aloud from Wikipedia on her phone: “In 2011 Ben & Jerry’s released a flavor named Schweddy Balls, in homage to the Saturday Night Live skit of the same name. An American group named One Million Moms protested, saying that the name was too explicit for grocery store shelves.”
“And not very appetizing,” says Chafee, with a sour face.
Sure enough, Ben and Jerry scoop ice cream for voters at the forum: Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Cookie Dough.
Chafee is the only actual candidate there. The others sent surrogates, even Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, a new candidate running to raise awareness about the influence of money in politics.
“The reason I’m running for president,” Chafee says in his opening statement, “is that I’m very, very concerned [about] the world after September 11. We made some bad decisions and now we need to repair what’s happened. . . . I had the good judgment not to vote for the Iraq war and I want to be the one making peace” in the Middle East.
He gets a warm ovation.
Ann Gerns, a voter from Plaistow, N.H., says later that Chafee has a good grip on the issues. “I definitely want to research his record.”
Might she vote for him?
“I need to research all their records,” she demurs.
Night has fallen by the time the Chafee campaign is back in the car, heading home. Rich drives. Chafee is in the back, wondering aloud how Lawrence Lessig got an appearance on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.
The GPS misdirects the campaign into a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs. Chafee consults a road map, holding it inches beneath the dome light, and recommends a way out.
The GPS recalculates, but Rich ignores it. “I’m going the Chafee way,” she says. “He has always been right on the issues.”Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com.