MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — It’s impossible to drive nearly anywhere in southern New Hampshire without seeing the name of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Gabbard’s face and name loom from yard signs and billboards all over the place here, in some spots outnumbering those of top-tier candidates like Bernie Sanders. Polls of New Hampshire have shown her pulling in a relatively small but significant amount of support: A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll put her at 6% last week, and the most recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll showed her winning 5%.
Gabbard has gone for broke in New Hampshire, barely campaigning anywhere else and even renting a house in the state late last year. She says she’s getting on a plane to South Carolina to continue campaigning after the primary here on Tuesday, but New Hampshire is where she has her strongest base of support, and where a disappointing finish could damage her rationale for continuing. At her second-to-last town hall, in Concord on Sunday evening, Gabbard spoke in front of a huge New Hampshire state flag. She brought enough of her mom’s macadamia nut toffee for everyone in the audience. She clearly feels at home.
And Gabbard does have real support here, her anti-interventionist foreign policy message appealing to the libertarian-minded voters who form a key constituency in a state where independents can vote in party primaries. It’s very likely not enough to win the state, and Gabbard’s campaign’s profile has lowered after failing to qualify for a debate since November. But it’s enough to affect the outcome, potentially pulling anti-establishment votes away from Sanders, and it demonstrates her enduring appeal to a small but vocal faction of people who don’t fit in anywhere else in the Democratic Party.
“We’re flying to South Carolina early Wednesday morning,” Gabbard told reporters at an Elks lodge in Rochester after a student journalist asked her if she had a path forward if she doesn’t win New Hampshire. “We’re continuing our campaign.”
(Her plan for Nevada, the next state to vote after New Hampshire, is less clear. When a reporter asked her whether she would campaign there, she demurred, saying again, “We’re going to South Carolina.”)
Gabbard has rooted her campaign for New Hampshire in appealing to independents, libertarians, and Republicans, and she asks the crowd at the beginning of each event to raise their hands if they are Democrats; if they are Republicans; and if they are independents or libertarians. At three consecutive events over the weekend, a large portion of the audience raised their hands at the third question.
On Sunday, Gabbard emphasized her willingness to appear on conservative media, saying at her Portsmouth event, “It's gotten to a point now, and I've experienced this and continue to experience this firsthand, where people say, ‘Tulsi, I won't support you because you go on Fox News.’”
“I’ll go on every platform possible, because I’m not only running for president to lead the viewers of MSNBC,” Gabbard said.
She has intensified her longstanding critique of the Democratic establishment, calling for DNC chair Tom Perez to resign after the chaotic disaster in the Iowa caucuses. Voters, she told reporters Sunday, “are increasingly wondering if this system, if this election, is going to be fair, is it going to be transparent, and is actually going to work.”
She slammed the DNC for changing rules regarding the number of individual donors a campaign has to have that had previously prevented Michael Bloomberg, who is funding his campaign himself, from qualifying for the debates. “This is yet another example of what frustrates voters most, is that the DNC is making decisions about who they get to hear from, who they don't get to hear from, before they cast their votes,” Gabbard told reporters on Saturday when I asked.
Her continual dismissal of the Democratic establishment is part of her attempt at casting herself as the one Democratic candidate who can appeal across party lines, and several voters I spoke with in New Hampshire were Republicans or independents who wanted to vote for her.
One, Mark Bessette, 54, already had voted by absentee ballot. He drove all the way from North Conway, in the north of the state, to Portsmouth, in the south, to see her; “I like her style,” he said. “And I like her stances. Slightly different from Trump on some things, but I like her aloha spirit.” Bessette said he voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
Last week, Gabbard appeared on Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report” YouTube channel — Paul captured second place in New Hampshire in the 2012 Republican primary — and on Sunday Business Insider reported that Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, had offered (in a voicemail to a campaign volunteer) to endorse her. Johnson later clarified to Reason magazine that although he likes Gabbard, he is supporting his former running mate Bill Weld, who is challenging President Trump for the Republican nomination.
And although Gabbard sounds exasperated when asked about the persistent speculation that she would consider leaving the Democratic Party altogether and has ruled the idea out many times, she spoke warmly about the concept of third parties in general at her Portsmouth town hall.
An attendee asked her, “Would you be receptive to a third political party, one that was perhaps oriented to veterans?”
“Of course,” Gabbard said. “I think that in our democracy there should be an openness or a viability for those seeking to form a party, whether it's veterans or based on other interests. I think the problem that we have now is the two-party system doesn't really allow for that, because of how much power and how much money is centralized in the national political parties.” Gabbard said the party organizations “shut out any kind of viable third party from really standing up and representing a unique constituency within this country.”
When I asked her during her press gaggle afterward if her embrace of the idea of a third party indicated any kind of shift on her part, she said several times, “I am not running as a third-party candidate.”
Gabbard’s critique of the Democratic Party is stronger and more difficult to dismiss from the inside. And the reality is that most voters in this primary will be Democrats. One couple in Rochester, Claire and Bruce Tessier, 64- and 65-year-olds from Nashua, told me they were choosing between Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar; Pat N, 50, a voter from Nashua who attended Gabbard’s town hall in Concord, said he was between Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg.
Gabbard even extends olive branches to these kinds of moderate Democrats, telling her Concord audience that although she is against “crony capitalism,” “I do not see the future of our country being a socialist nation.”
Her campaign has been idiosyncratic — she’s a Democrat but she’s taken shots at everyone in the party, including what sounded like a veiled one at Sanders, whom she’d allied with in 2016. And even as she’s appealed to similarly idiosyncratic voters here, it’d be a surprise if she manages to get anywhere close to the top in Tuesday’s primary. What her path forward is without a strong performance is unclear.