Lincoln Chafee is the George Pataki of the Democratic Party

Lincoln Chafee officially re-announced his candidacy for president yesterday in front of what can only be described as the opposite of a crowd in a lecture hall at George Mason University. The former senator and governor of Rhode Island has technically been a candidate since mid-April, when he accidentally said the magic words “I’m running” on CNN.

And the political press — to say nothing of the American public — cared about as much yesterday as they did the first time he announced, which is to say not at all:

Chafee’s announcement speech included a few original (as in, not mentioned by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders) appeals to the left in an attempt to draw distinctions between himself and his opponents — allowing Edward Snowden to return to the United States, ending the military’s ban on transgender soldiers and switching to the metric system — but there weren’t many takers. Well, aside from a few snarky jokes at Chafee’s expense for making the metric system a campaign issue:

To be clear, the jokes aren’t at the expense of the metric system, which remains the undisputed champion of measurement. They’re at the expense of Lincoln Chafee, who has no chance of ever becoming president. Like, at all. He has never run in a Democratic primary election of any kind, as his time as a politician was largely being spent as a Republican, then as an independent. His sole opening to Hillary Clinton’s left — the Iraq War — is no longer at the forefront of Democratic primary voters’ minds. And even if it were, they’d have a far more credible anti-Iraq War candidate in Bernie Sanders, who has a modicum of momentum and a clear lock on the ideological space on Hillary Clinton’s left flank.

This means that the most apt political analogy for Chafee is not Barack Obama, who came out of nowhere to defeat Hillary Clinton by exploiting her vote in favor of the Iraq War, but rather George Pataki, who is running a nearly identical “because I’m bored” presidential campaign on the Republican side despite being the least conservative Republican FiveThirtyEight has bothered to measure.

The parallels are striking:

No one knows who they are

I’m 24 years old and, despite spending plenty of time watching the evening news as a kid, I cannot remember a time in which George Pataki was at all relevant. I know that he was governor of New York at some point because other people said so, and I believe them because he sort of looks like he could be from New York (I looked it up; he’s been out of politics altogether since 2006, when I was 15 years old). Similarly, Lincoln Chafee has spent a grand total of eight years in national politics, as a Senator from 1999 to 2007. Before that, he was the mayor of a city with a population of less than 100,000 people; after that, he was the governor of our nation’s smallest state as measured by land mass.

Which one is which???

Which one is Chafee???

In other words, no one knows who either of these people are. No one was clamoring for them to enter the race, and no one is excited now that they have. They are D-list figures at best, with no base of support and who even the most avid observers only vaguely remember — the political equivalent of Rob Schneider and Randy Quaid. If you were to put a picture of Lincoln Chafee next to a picture of George Pataki and asked people who was who, 90 percent of Americans would flip a coin to make their pick. Not because they didn’t know the difference (they wouldn’t), but because giving the question much more thought than that would be a waste of their time.

No one cares that they’re running

According to data released by Facebook, George Pataki’s campaign announcement has generated the least amount of social media activity of any candidate so far, with only 59,000 people mentioning or interacting with the launch in any meaningful way. Lincoln Chafee’s announcement is likely to limbo-walk right under that low bar.

The only people paying attention to these candidates are the political journalists, who are either a) obligated to cover them because, hey, someone who used to hold public office is officially running for president; or b) like me, genuinely amused and/or confused by their candidacies.

In other words, while both of these candidates are running for the sole purpose of raising their national profile and reminding everyone that they exist, they may not even be able to squeeze that out of their presidential bids.

No one knows why they’re running

George Pataki is a pro-choice, pro-marriage equality candidate with a less-than-godawful environmental record. In other words, he isn’t a Republican in any meaningful sense of the word. Lincoln Chafee, by contrast, is an actual former Republican who opposed the Bush tax cuts not because they exacerbated economic inequality, but because he was worried they would get in the way of making deep spending cuts to social programs.

In short, Pataki and Chafee are both candidates whose positions were last seen as politically viable at the national level around the year 2000. It’s no coincidence that both of them peaked around that time. Going on 16 years later, however, they’re both “old school” in all the wrong ways, like the dad who really wants to get on Facebook but lost his password and doesn’t know how to recover it.

Speaking of which…

chafee facebook


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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