Each year, the last player chosen in the NFL draft is nicknamed “Mr. Irrelevant.” If the Democratic presidential nominating contest was like the NFL draft, former Republican, Independent, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee wouldn’t even be Mr. Irrelevant—he’d be the next guy in line.
In a new poll from Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday, Chafee’s support registered at 0.0 percent. As Mother Jones pointed out, he didn’t just get less than 1 percent of the vote, he got none of it. Out of the 1,001 people Monmouth polled, zero of them said Chafee was their candidate of choice.
Think for a second about how rare it is for 1,001 people to agree on anything. You probably couldn’t get 1,001 random people to agree that the U.S. has 50 states or that the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. If you had 1,001 scientists, 100.1 of them wouldn’t believe in the manmade origins of climate change. If you had 1,001 dentists, 100.1 of them would not recommend Crest. In Chafee’s case, the unanimity of his rejection was undoubtedly aided by the fact that 78 percent of those polled had no idea who he was and thus had no real option to choose him—although that shouldn’t make his campaign feel much better.
Full disclosure: some of us here at the Prospect’s office are a bit obsessed with Chafee. From his insistence on converting to the metric system to the bizarre saga of his Facebook password, his presidential campaign is equal parts fascinating and funny, and we are not embarrassed to say we can’t get enough of it. So yes, when it comes to Chafee, we may not be the most objective critics of his newsworthiness. But while his abysmal polling numbers (or lack thereof) may not be technically newsworthy, they do beg a few interesting questions. First and foremost: why is he doing so poorly?
There is the obvious: he’s underfunded and his name recognition is nil. But why?
On Wednesday, Matthew Yglesias at Vox had a piece on Donald Trump in which he says that “Trumpism” is what a successful third party in American politics would look like:
Indeed, Trumpism is what a third party would have to sound like to get traction in America—a grab bag of issue positions that appeal to a substantial minority of the electorate but that neither party wants to wholeheartedly embrace because the ideas are too toxic in the elite circles that fund campaigns.
He specifically compares Trump to Michael Bloomberg, the kind of independent moderate who conventional wisdom tells us would be an attractive third party candidate—the best of both worlds. Yglesias makes a convincing case that it’s actually the best of no worlds. This is exactly the kind of candidate Chafee is, just on the Democratic side.
On the one hand, voters and donors who are attracted to his dovish foreign policy, environmentalism, and opposition to the death penalty already have a candidate, Bernie Sanders, and an alternative, Martin O’Malley. On the other hand, voters and donors who are attracted to his support for market solutions and free trade also already have a candidate, Jim Webb. For everyone else in the Democratic Party who wants someone who can beat the Republican nominee, there’s Hillary Clinton. Chafee is really just a fifth wheel.
Someone might point out that O’Malley and Webb have very little support either, and this is true. But they don’t have zero support.
Of course, all of this begs the question: why is he running? One of my colleagues at the Prospect has become a little too attached to the idea of the metric system and claims Chafee is just angling for a Cabinet position as Commerce Secretary (the department in charge of the National Institute of Standards and Technology). Originally, I saw his candidacy as the Democratic equivalent to Lindsay Graham’s, as something to check off his career bucket list. The more and more I read about him, though, I’m not so sure. He may genuinely believe he is the best choice for both the party and the country—despite the fact that he’s the only one.