vision 2020

Tulsi Gabbard’s Eclectic Base

The former Bernie Sanders activist has made a lot of new friends lately. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

If you’ve followed U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s political career, you might figure the base of support for her long-shot Democratic presidential campaign would be progressives with views even more anti-Establishmentarian than those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on foreign policy and national security issues. That has been her most distinctive message both in Congress and on the campaign trail, mostly conveyed via her regular denunciations of “regime-change wars,” her characterization of the Iraq conflict in which she was a quickly disillusioned participant. Yes, she has some other characteristics that aren’t exactly lefty-friendly, including a history of some discomfort with LGBTQ rights (since renounced) and a persistent tendency to treat abortion as a necessary evil requiring some government regulation. But all in all, she’s the natural candidate for those in what one might call the Noam Chomsky wing of the progressive movement, especially those who have regarded the Democratic Party’s use of Cold War and global war on terrorism arguments against Trump’s foreign policy with anger or horror.

Her fiery tweetstorm reaction to a misquoted comment by Hillary Clinton on a podcast recently is entirely redolent of the views of anti-militarist progressives, particularly those who, like Gabbard, backed Bernie Sanders in 2016, addressing HRC as “the queen of the warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.” It’s not surprising that Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has come to her defense repeatedly.

According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley, however, the Hawaiian pol’s actual base of support is found largely outside the progressive coalition or the Democratic Party:

[W]hat do we know about Gabbard’s base? For one thing, it’s overwhelmingly male — in The Economist’s national polling average, her support among men is in the mid-single digits, while her support among women is practically nonexistent …

Gabbard’s supporters are also likely to fall outside of traditional Democratic circles. Her supporters, for instance, are more likely to have backed President Trump in 2016, hold conservative views or identify as Republican compared to voters backing the other candidates. An early November poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 24 percent of Democratic primary voters who voted for Trump in 2016 backed Gabbard.

Other data cited by Skelley suggests that she’d do better than otherwise expected in open Democratic primaries (like New Hampshire’s) where conservative-tilting indies can participate. Indeed, with Trump facing no real competition on the Republican side, you could see solid Republicans drifting over into the Democratic primaries to cast a vote for a candidate like Gabbard in states with no party registration (e.g., much of the South).

Why the fascination with Gabbard among Trumpy bros? Some of it undoubtedly stems from enemy-of-my-enemy sentiment. Her attacks on HRC are clearly from a progressive ideological position, but attacks on HRC are always in season on the right. She has also deliberately cultivated a conservative media following, as Skelley notes:

Gabbard has become a bit of a conservative media darling in the primary, with conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and pro-Trump social media personalities like Mike Cernovich complimenting her for her foreign policy views. In a primary in which some 2020 Democratic contenders have boycotted Fox NewsGabbard has regularly appeared on the network. Just last week, Gabbard even did an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, a far-right political outlet. She’s also made appeals outside the political mainstream by going on The Joe Rogan Experience — one of the most popular podcasts in the country and a favored outlet for members of the Intellectual Dark Web, whose purveyors don’t fit neatly into political camps but generally criticize concepts such as political correctness and identity politics.

Before we invoke clichés about “left and right extremes meeting” and lump together Gabbard and her conservative fans as identical, it’s worth observing that she may appeal to a particular subset of people on the right, notably those who emphasize Trump’s anti-interventionist instincts (perpetually at war with his militarism and zest for killing people) or perceive Trumpism as a revolt against elites in both parties. And some of her appeal may be nonideological: She is young (38 years old) and telegenic, and has a cool background as not only a military veteran but also an avid surfer. It’s unlikely any other presidential candidate has been photographed so often in swimwear.

In any event, Gabbard’s unorthodox following has lifted her to the November and very likely December (she’s just one qualifying poll short with a month to go) debate stages. She’s already foresworn any effort to hang onto her House seat (she was in some trouble in the Democratic primary), so she has no reason to do anything other than to stay in the race and build support through provocative remarks in debates and in receptive media outlets, which cost her nothing.

But her current trajectory is bound to make her wonder whether the relatively small group of Trumpy men who plan to vote for her in Democratic primaries reflects a broader potential general-election constituency, particular if the Democratic Party nominates another “warmonger” like Clinton. She’s already publicly disclaimed any interest in an independent or third-party general-election bid. But my colleague Jonathan Chait doesn’t much believe her, after reading an attack on Clinton that Gabbard penned for the Wall Street Journal:

“Whether Mrs. Clinton’s name is on the ballot or not,” she writes, “her foreign policy will be, as many of the Democratic candidates adhere to her doctrine” of endless regime change, etc. Gabbard is saying right now that any Democratic nominee is going to be Hillary Clinton. What does that tell you about her intentions?

The Journal editorial page is not normally enthusiastic about running screeds denouncing the bloodstained neocon war machine. But it’s happy to make an exception for somebody who’s in the electing-Republicans business.

Conservative media will continue to roll out the welcome mat for a Democrat illustrating her party’s “disarray,” whether or not she has any interest in a general-election campaign. So get used to seeing her in the company of her new (Fox &) Friends.

Tulsi Gabbard’s Eclectic Base