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Before Exit, Chafee Cozied Up To Local Dems in N.H.

NHPR's State of Democracy app is sponsored in part by: The NH Primary Student Convention, January 4th-6th, 2016.

New Hampshire voters might not have seen much of Lincoln Chafee before he bowed out of the presidential race Friday. If you happen to be involved with your local Democratic town committee, however, you might be on a first-name basis with the former candidate.

Back in May, right after Chafee announced he was mulling a run for president, the members of the Amherst and Milford Democrats wasted no time reaching out.

“We picked up the phone and called his home number,” committee chair Shannon Chandley recalled Friday. “’Do you want to come to our potluck?’”

Chafee obliged — and after that first visit his campaign strategy found him relying, again and again, on local activists as his main audience in the Granite State.

He crashed their clambakes, summer barbecues and community picnics. He traveled to monthly meetings from Mt. Chocorua to Merrimack County. He tagged along with town Democratic groups at Fourth of July and Old Home Day celebrations, often shuttling up from Rhode Island for just for a few hours before driving back home.

Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

For a candidate with little money and  staff, these kinds of events were a low-cost, low-maintenance way for Chafee to make his pitch to potential voters — he didn’t have to plan the events or worry about rounding up people to attend. He just had to show up to places where others had already handled the legwork.

When the Rockingham County Democratic Committee organized a presidential forum in September, Chafee was the only candidate who actually showed up — the other campaigns sent surrogates.

Across the state, the local activists who served as Chafee’s primary audience had kind words for him. George Sykes, with the Upper Valley Democrats, appreciated Chafee’s principled explanation for why he decided to switch his political affiliation after years as a Republican. 

Larry Drake, with the Rockingham County Democratic Committee, found Chafee to be “very sincere” and exceedingly “down-to-earth.” 

Still, Chandley and others still sensed that Chafee was — for better or worse — taking a somewhat subdued approach to his campaign.

“He answered questions thoughtfully, but he wasn’t politicking in the way that most of the candidates we see are doing,” Chandley said.

And outside of his time cozying up to local Democratic committees, Chafee didn’t have much of a footprint in New Hampshire. He didn’t spend any campaign money here, according to federal campaign finance records — no paid staffers, no field offices, no TV ads.

According to New England Cable News, he did set aside time for a few town halls — most recently at Colby Sawyer College in September —but for the most part stuck to the grassroots circuit.

And that, in turn, didn’t do much to help him win over a larger pool of voters.

“If you’re serious about winning the New Hampshire primary, you’ve got to have paid staff on the ground contacting the voters, doing phone banks and canvassing,” Drake said. “You’ve got to grind it out. I could tell that just doing what he was doing was not going to win him the nomination.”

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