On the last Saturday in October, in the small town of Blackstock, South Carolina, Tulsi Gabbard — dressed, as she frequently is, in white — sat in a seafood restaurant. She listened attentively while members of the state Democratic Party’s rural and black caucuses met as part of a listening tour. This was a meeting mostly about local issues, and though Gabbard had earlier made some remarks, she was now quiet and took notes, occasionally tapping on her phone. She was the only presidential candidate there, though other campaigns had put up signs or sent representatives. After the meeting was finished, she stayed and shook hands, the very picture of a candidate doing basic, non-flashy retail politics. The appearance wasn’t designed for cameras or attention — Gabbard’s campaign hadn’t even put the event on her press advisory, though a few reporters showed up anyway.
It was an average day on the campaign trail, but Gabbard’s campaign isn’t average.
The weekend trip to South Carolina came in the midst of a bitter public feud with her party’s last presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, over Clinton accusing Gabbard of being a Republican plant being “groomed” for a third-party run. The tiff has elevated Gabbard as she positions herself as the primary’s anti-Clinton and channels resentment with the last campaign. She’s suddenly close to qualifying for the next presidential debate and running neck-and-neck in the lower tier with candidates like Kamala Harris.
Gabbard insists that despite her fight with her party’s establishment, she’d never split off from the Democratic primary to run a third-party campaign. Those declarations have many high-profile doubters. But in the absence of hard evidence that she’s part of a nefarious plot, what if we took Tulsi Gabbard at her word? What if this campaign is really about what she says it’s about?
Gabbard has consistently been portrayed in the media as an enigmatic figure, someone whose motivations are unclear and who must be hiding something. But Gabbard herself, more so than several other candidates, actually presents a clear-cut rationale for her candidacy. According to her, she is running to end “regime change” wars and turn the tide on America’s history of military interventionism. But the weirder aspects of her career — like her connection to a secretive and controversial religious sect and her views on the Syrian civil war and willingness to meet with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — have fueled skepticism of her motives. Recent moves she’s made, like her announcement that she won’t run for reelection in the House of Representatives, have only intensified that skepticism.
But to Gabbard’s defenders, the refusal to take Gabbard at face value is tantamount to targeting her for her unorthodox views.
“I just find this theme that is always smuggled into coverage of her, that she is somehow mysteriously elusive, is a product of the biases of the reporter who can’t fathom that maybe she does have a good faith commitment to reform policy and feel she’s in a position of being able to use the platform of the campaign to continue advancing that,” said Michael Tracey, a left-wing freelance journalist who gained notoriety as a Russia investigation skeptic.
Tracey has been a frequent defender of Gabbard on Twitter, though he says he’s not an “outright supporter.” I ran into Tracey at a Gabbard press conference in New York last week. “I’m not saying you can’t be skeptical of a politician’s stated motivations, but I just don’t see that same skepticism applied across the board.”
Gabbard probably has the worst relationship with her party’s establishment of any of the Democrats in the race. The distance has been growing for years; Gabbard resigned from the DNC in 2016 in protest of how the party handled Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. She’s frequently shown up on Fox News critiquing her party in one way or another, including recently over the transparency of the House impeachment inquiry. Gabbard responded fiercely to Clinton’s comments about her in a way that was just as critical of the party as of Clinton. “You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain,” Gabbard tweeted. “It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me.”
Soon after that, she published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal casting the rest of the field as mere copies of Clinton. The op-ed led New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait to conclude that, no matter what she says, Gabbard is clearly preparing for a third-party campaign. “There is no line in the piece committing Gabbard to running exclusively in the Democratic primary,” Chait pointed out. “It doesn’t even mention the primary.”
But Gabbard has said she won’t run third-party, and she has been very categorical about it. After a town hall in Columbia, South Carolina, last Saturday, I asked her whether there were any circumstances under which she would change her mind.
“No, no. Answer’s still the same. Nope,” Gabbard said. I also asked her whether she thought she would always be a Democrat. She answered yes.
The speculation over this began well before the Gabbard–Clinton showdown; when Jim Sciutto asked her if she would run as an independent on CNN in August, she said, “I will not. I’ve ruled that out.” Her campaign is indignant at the very mention of the issue. “Honestly, if I was a journalist, I’d be embarrassed to ask @TulsiGabbard if she’s running third party,” Gabbard’s press assistant Cullen Tiernan tweeted last Wednesday. “She’s said no so many times, what does she have to do? Say no while standing upside down on the ceiling? In this conspiracy theory, what third party are they even imagining?”
Of course, if Gabbard did reverse course, she wouldn’t be the first politician who said she absolutely, positively wouldn’t do something and then did it anyway. If Gabbard used cagier language to more obviously leave her options open — saying she had no intentions or current plans to run third-party, for example — she would sow distrust among Democratic voters and hurt her ability to run in the Democratic primary for now.
A source who knows Gabbard and who spoke on condition of anonymity said Gabbard had told some donors and supporters that she will be in the race until the end, though it wasn’t clear what end she was referring to. Robert Wolf, a Democratic fundraiser who hosted Gabbard for an off-the-record dinner at Anthony Scaramucci’s Hunt and Fish Club restaurant in New York recently, said Gabbard made a remark to this effect during the dinner, but that he interpreted her as saying she planned to stick around through the primary, not that she was hinting at a third-party run. “I certainly did not take it like she was intimating anything but that she’s a staunch Democrat and feels she’s making headway.”
Wolf said there had been discussion among the group of, by his estimate, 20 attendees of the crowded Democratic field and of how long candidates would stay in the race, and “That’s when I think she intimated that she could see herself staying in for a very long time or till the end and that she was in it to win... She didn’t intimate that she could be in it to the end meaning she’d be running third-party.” Wolf said Gabbard was “emphatic” about not considering a third-party campaign. A spokesperson for Gabbard didn’t respond to a request for comment about Gabbard’s remark. Gabbard told the AP last week that she planned to take her campaign all the way to the Democratic convention, even without the necessary delegates to secure the nomination.
But from Gabbard’s perspective, why not run third-party? She has committed fans, they believe in her message, and she is above all a message candidate. Some Gabbard supporters I spoke with said they would follow her wherever she goes.
I met Tom and Judy Langston, an older couple in Tulsi T-shirts, at her event in Blackstock. They’re from Lancaster, South Carolina, and they volunteer for Gabbard in the state. I asked them what they would do if Gabbard ran third-party. “I would go with her,” Judy Langston said. “I am a Democrat. I’ve never voted anything but Democrat, but I believe in this candidate.” Tom Langston hadn’t made up his mind, saying he would base his decision on whoever the Democratic nominee is. “I’ve never voted anything but Democrat either, so I will have to think about it,” he said. “I would follow her, because I believe it’s her,” Judy said. But both Langstons agreed that they believed Gabbard when she said she wouldn’t do such a thing.
Another duo of Gabbard supporters I spoke to at an event she held in New York last week had a similar stance. Eileen Tepper, 56, and Sofia Zaldivar, 18, both regularly travel to New Hampshire to volunteer for the Gabbard campaign and are among her crew of steadfast online fans. Tepper and Zaldivar, though separated generationally, got interested in Gabbard in a similar way. Tepper said she first heard of her on progressive podcaster Jimmy Dore’s show and then got hooked when she listened to Gabbard’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s massively popular podcast. Zaldivar said she’d been introduced to Gabbard through “indie media,” including Dore, Rogan, and the progressive YouTuber Kim Iversen. Zaldivar wouldn’t vote for any of the Democrats except Gabbard, while Tepper’s second choice is Bernie Sanders, and she said she didn’t have a third choice. Both said they would vote for Gabbard if she ran as a third-party candidate. “At this point, I hope that she doesn’t only because she has said so many times that she won’t,” Tepper said. “I believe if she does now — I don’t think it’s going to look good for her, personally.”
“I don’t think she has any intention of doing that,” Zaldivar said.
The idea, Gabbard’s critics say, is that she will run third-party in order to draw votes away from the Democratic nominee, thus helping to reelect President Donald Trump, a suspicion that goes back to when Gabbard and Trump met in private after his election. But as voters like Zaldivar demonstrate, some of her constituency wouldn’t be voting for the Democratic nominee anyway. And it’s not so clear that a Gabbard independent run would hurt Democrats more than it would Trump. A recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of New Hampshire voters found that 28% of Republicans in the state supported her (the poll also found she had 5% support overall, thus putting her in fifth place there). And an Economist/YouGov poll found that 21% of Trump voters supported Gabbard. She is a darling of conservative media, and she frequently appears on Fox News. The Wall Street Journal opinion section isn’t where a Democratic candidate would normally go to reach Democratic voters.
Gabbard’s support isn’t easily sorted into a left–right paradigm. At her town hall in Columbia last Saturday, one voter who asked her a question identified himself as “a bit of a fish out of water,” saying he identifies as a Republican; “without even asking for a raise of hands, I can guarantee you’re not alone,” Gabbard responded. Another said he used to be a Republican and had voted for Gary Johnson, 2016’s Libertarian Party candidate, then considered himself an independent. “But then I saw you and your courage to take on the DNC in 2016, you stepped down after they, should I say harassed you for not falling in line,” the man said, crediting her for his “political awakening” and for his becoming “more educated” on foreign policy. One man asked her about foreign aid to Israel, suggesting the country had “targeted” Gabbard “through the media” (Gabbard responded that Israel would always be an ally, but that the US “should not be blind to that relationship, like with any ally”).
Gabbard regularly takes up causes that other Democrats avoid. Last Tuesday, she held a press conference at the 9/11 Tribute Museum in New York’s Financial District with the families of 9/11 victims, who are suing Saudi Arabia over alleged complicity by Saudi officials in the attack and are trying to get the FBI to release information related to its 9/11 investigation. The family members there praised Gabbard for being the only presidential candidate who would give them the time of day. “They couldn't do enough to help us, whereas the other candidates just passed us off to different people around the country and we'd never gotten anywhere with them,” said Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed on 9/11. Gabbard called for an end to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and advocated for all the documents the families are seeking to be released.
It was the kind of moment that shows how different Gabbard is willing to be within the primary, and how effective that can be for people who won’t necessarily otherwise be engaged by presidential candidates. What she did later that week underscored that difference between her and the other Democrats running, and the kind of left-to-right outreach that makes her skeptics nervous: She took the issue to Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.