When former Rhode Island governor and senator Lincoln Chafee waves to America from the Democratic presidential primary stage tonight, the main reaction he will probably get is, “Huh?” The presidential candidate is currently at around 0.6 percent in the polls, according to the Huffington Post polling average, which puts him a considerable distance behind the sleeper hits “Other” and “Undecided.”
Despite the fact that he has run an exceptionally under-the-radar campaign, he did manage to beat the odds and win over enough supporters to get on the CNN debate stage.
What was the secret to his success? Let’s go over a few of the things that Chafee has done the past few months while no one was watching.
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
If you are a candidate who isn’t doing too well on the fundraising front and are mostly relying on the beneficence of yourself, it is crucial to make sure your campaign is smart with cash.
Driving your own car to campaign events is a great way to save money, and as Rick Santorum and Scott Brown have showed, it is also a great way to highlight the underdog nature of your campaign — that is if any reporters are writing about you. When reporters do write about you, it is crucial to take them for a spin in said car, and show them how the candidate’s keen sense of direction is a great metaphor for his ability to take the country in the right direction.
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. … 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.”
If you have run several previous political campaigns — especially ones that proved successful — and happen to have some leftover stickers or campaign materials, it is wise to reuse them instead of springing for new swag. It doesn’t really matter if the campaign slogans aren’t quite the same — the election might be over, but the words you used to win them remain true, right?
As he spoke, Chafee aide Jonathan Stevens handed out stickers saying “Trust Chafee.” The design and motto are identical to the one from his 2010 campaign for governor. Asked if they’re 2010 leftovers, Stevens replied, “We recycle everything.”
Stickers bearing this year’s motto, “Fresh Ideas for America,” were nowhere in sight.
2. Keep Voters Thinking After You Leave
Chafee has visited New Hampshire quite a few times in the past few months, and he has learned to keep voters on their toes, thinking about what he said even after he finishes laying out his platform. While many of the other Democratic candidates can sound the same on many issues, you can stand out if potential supporters think, “Wait, what?” after your events.
Eileen Lane in Exeter felt this in the most literal sense last Tuesday, according to the Providence Journal. “People I spoke with were impressed by his knowledge and his service. But they said he needs to show a little more vigor and speak louder. Of course, a lot of people here are hard of hearing.”
However, the part of his speech she did hear left her wondering too. “To tell you the truth, the only thing I knew was that he was talking about the metric system.” Chafee’s presidential campaign began with a speech that mentioned his passion in changing the U.S. over to the metric system. Another voter that a reporter spoke to in Belknap County, New Hampshire, was also befuddled as to why Chafee kept talking about kilometers. “With all the troubles that are going on, that seems almost odd to bring up.”
Chafee later told the Boston Globe that he had considered not mentioning that in his curtain raiser, fearing it would become a “punch line.” He explained to reporters in New Hampshire, “I dropped it as a thing I bring up,” because it was hard to explain “the facility of implementing it and the economic benefits and then the symbolic benefits.”
The candidate does have a few issues where he stands out from his opponents, besides the metric system. He was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the Iraq War, and he thinks that Edward Snowden should be allowed to return to the U.S. without being punished. He also voted against the Bush tax cuts and for comprehensive immigration reform as a Republican.
3. Reach Out to Groups That You Know Aren’t Being Contacted By Your Rivals
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both have huge operations of very different sorts adept at reaching out to constituencies and trying to win their support. Lincoln Chafee does not have a huge operation. He has his car, with which he can drive to New Hampshire and meet voters from time to time.
However, Chafee does have some connections from his past that are very excited about his campaign, and him alone. Probably not his class at Andover — he has some competition from classmate Jeb Bush. Among blacksmith and horse racing circles, however, Chafee appears to have all the attention to himself. The newsletter Harness Racing Update, which just published its last issue this October, wrote a five-page profile of Chafee last April titled, “The Harness Racing Blacksmith Who Just Might Become President of the United States.” Clark Beelby, who Harness Racing Update notes “would be voted Alberta Horseman of the Year three times,” told the newsletter, “I really feel he is by far the most patriotic candidate in the race — Democrats or Republicans. When I visited him in Washington, he was carrying around the U.S. Constitution in his pocket.”
4. Have a Repository of Anecdotes You Can Deploy When People Ask If You Can Win
When you are continuously polling under one percent, reporters and voters will often ask why you are running, or why you are confident you can still win. When this happens, it is useful to have a specific historical example of when someone beat the odds in a memorable way. Chafee sends inquiring minds back to the 2004 Democratic primary. “By Christmas time, not one person said John Kerry. Not one person. When his name came up it was, ‘No, no, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean.’ A month later, he won New Hampshire.” If you are forced to deal with follow-ups, it is wise to put on a face of utter disgust and distract reporters by offering commentary on the woeful state of the media and political discourse. According to the Associated Press, Chafee once told a reporter interested in his campaign infrastructure in New Hampshire, or lack thereof, “You guys never ask anything about the substance. It’s always about how many people, how much money have you raised. Ugh. I wish there was more intellectual discussion about the issues in these campaigns.”
5. If You Aren’t Having Luck Getting Press Coverage, Have Attention-Getting Supporters
Chafee got his first big headline in ages last week after his supporters were proved to be especially proficient at grammar; the app Grammarly checked the comments left on the Facebook pages of all presidential candidates, and Chafee’s fans were especially gifted at not mangling their prose. Donald Trump’s fans did not share this skill. However, Chafee also had far fewer comments than everyone else, leaving less room for errors to pile up.
6. Have So Few Reporters That Late-Night Hosts Want to Help You Instead of Make Fun of You
Back in August, Conan O’Brien made it his “mission” to get Lincoln Chafee to one percent in the polls because “it seems like the nice thing to do.” Two months later, Lincoln Chafee was doing well enough to get on the CNN debate stage; the only rule was “Be over one percent in the polls.”
7. Get Ready for Your Big National-Debate Debut By Walking
Chafee is in Las Vegas now, preparing to take the stage and have people finally learn what he looks like. And how is he getting ready? His spokesperson told a CNN reporter, “He has taken some walks. He likes to walk. That gets him in the right mindset.”
Who knows, maybe after all this hard work — and a debate performance that keeps the metric system mentions to a minimum — maybe Chafee will even get to a unheard of 2 percent in the polls!