Antonia Noori Farzan, a Rhode Island-based freelancer writer, recently caught up with Lincoln Chafee as he campaigned in Iowa. Here's her guest report for On Politics:
At Milio’s Sandwiches, next to the convention center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lincoln Chafee’s name drew a blank.
“I don’t even know who that is,” Dustin Heller, who was working the register as a steady stream of campaign staffers, reporters, and off-duty Secret Service agents wandered in, said.
“Never heard of him,” his coworker, Robert Burns, agreed.
Chafee was about to appear at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner, alongside the four other candidates for the Democratic nomination. The event is considered the unofficial start to the Iowa caucuses, and politicians, accompanied by sign-twirling volunteers and TV news crews, had taken over the city.
But outside of the politically connected crowd at the convention center, it seemed like the only people who had heard of Chafee were two protestors from Veterans for Peace.
“Oh, from Rhode Island!” Jeff Strottman, whose handmade sign read, “Drones Fly, Children Die,” replied.
“Linc’s good,” Linda Fisher, who was handing out flyers, said.
It makes sense that Chafee’s name would register favorably with antiwar activists, since his campaign has focused heavily on peace and diplomacy, advocating for a stop to “endless wars” and an end to drone strikes, among other things.
Despite the odds that he faces -- he registered zero support among voters in a recent Monmouth University poll, and raised only $29,049.03 in the first quarter of his campaign -- he argues that his emphasis on international relations sets him apart from the other candidates.
Still, foreign policy is a hard sell with voters, he acknowledges. “Americans tend to have a lower priority on the international issues," Chafee said. "We have these two big oceans on the other side of us and everything seems far away.”
As for the troubling poll numbers, though, the former governor suggests that his choice to switch parties is to blame. “I did anticipate this was going to be a slow process, because I’m a new Democrat, and it just takes time for people to understand that my positions on issues have been consistently in sync with the Democratic party despite my past affiliations: social issues, women’s issues, economic issues, raising the minimum wage, LGBT issues, you name it.”
But it wasn’t his party-switching or lack of name recognition that worried a group of Iowa Democratic Party county chairs who listened to him speak at the Cedar Rapids Public Library the next day. It was his mild-mannered disposition.
“He’s very soft-spoken. He seems like such a nice guy, like he’s really looking out for everybody,” Laura Hubka, the chair of the Howard County Democrats, said. But would she vote for him? “Probably not. He just seems too nice.”
Terry Stewart, the former chair of the Dubuque County Democrats, said that he appreciated Chafee’s demeanor and would consider supporting him. “I think in an international negotiation, his calm, intellectual approach would serve well,” he explained.
But most seemed to agree with Lorraine Williams, who serves as the chair of the Washington County Democrats. “In this part of the campaign you want to feel a little more oomph,” she said. “I think right now people are saying, ‘Get me riled up.’ Because the Democrats need to get riled up. They need to get their passion back.”
Given that Chafee has gained minimal support, many question what motivates him to continue with the thankless task of campaigning.
“It sounds cliché, but I do have children,” Chafee said. “And I feel a responsibility, since I’ve started at the local level and worked my way through the political system, to not just walk away from it when I have these strong feelings that nobody’s talking about.”
Raising money and building name recognition will continue be a challenge, Chafee admits. Of particular concern is the Democratic National Committee’s plan to set a threshold for the primary debates this fall. Although it’s not clear yet whether that threshold will be based on fundraising or poll results, either could potentially disqualify him.
“But if things don’t work out, I’ll feel good about myself,” he says. “I brought up the issues that I think are important. “