Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has spent most of the 2020 presidential campaign on the periphery, attracting low levels of support. But she’s also managed to develop a bit of a cult following as an outsider candidate who has sparred with the Democratic establishment and been critical of the use of American power abroad. Her unorthodox views and conflict with the party have even fueled speculation that she might run as a third-party candidate — a claim Gabbard has repeatedly denied.
However, one thing is clear: Gabbard doesn’t seem to be planning to drop out any time soon. In late October, she announced that she would not seek reelection to her seat in Hawaii, and while she’s by no means a front-runner in the race, she has managed to qualify for the November debate and is just one poll shy from making the December debate after Quinnipiac University released a New Hampshire survey on Monday that found her at 6 percent. So here’s a look at what Gabbard’s support looks like, and how that can help us make sense of her unusual candidacy.
For starters, despite her upstart campaign, Gabbard doesn’t have a ton of supporters: She’s averaging 1 to 2 percent in national surveys and 2 to 4 percent in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But she’s managed to meet the higher polling thresholds for debate qualification, so her support has grown at least a little bit — and what’s more, a chunk of it seems to be exclusively considering backing Gabbard. Back in October FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to dig into candidate support before and after the fourth Democratic debate. Our survey found that 13 percent of Gabbard’s supporters said they were only considering voting for her, a larger share than all Democratic candidates other than former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have more support overall.
So what do we know about Gabbard’s base? For one thing, it’s overwhelmingly male —according to The Economist’s polling with YouGov, her support among men is in the mid-single digits, while her support among women is practically nonexistent.
This trend is evident in other recent polls as well. Last week’s Quinnipiac poll of Iowa found Gabbard at 5 percent among men and 1 percent among women, and Quinnipiac’s new survey of New Hampshire found her at 9 percent among men and 4 percent among women. A late October national poll from Suffolk University found her at 6 percent among men and 2 percent among women.
Her predominantly male support shows up in other ways, too. An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found that only 24 percent of Gabbard’s itemized contributions had come from female donors, the smallest percentage of any candidate in the race. And while she doesn’t lead on the prediction markets, which tend to skew heavily young and male, as of publication, bettors do give her a slightly better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than Sen. Kamala Harris on PredictIt, though still not better than internet favorite Andrew Yang.
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. By comparison, 12 percent of these voters backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 11 percent backed Biden and 10 percent backed Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Primary voters who identified as conservative also overwhelmingly backed Gabbard in that poll (16 percent) — only Biden and Harris enjoyed more support from this group (27 percent and 17 percent, respectively).
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And a University of New Hampshire/CNN survey in late October found Gabbard actually ahead of Biden among Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire who identified as Republican, at 28 percent to Biden’s 18 percent. To be sure, the number of conservative, Republican and/or Trump voters in these polls was not large, but considering Gabbard doesn’t get that much backing to begin with — 3 percent in The Economist’s poll and 5 percent in the University of New Hampshire’s — these voters do make up a significant chunk of her support.
Quinnipiac’s New Hampshire survey also signaled Gabbard might have success among independent voters in the Democratic primary, a group that boosted Sanders in the 2016 race. In that poll, 10 percent of registered independents backed Gabbard versus just 1 percent of registered Democrats. That could be significant for Gabbard, because independents are allowed to vote in the New Hampshire primary (registered Republicans are not). Quinnipiac didn’t separate out conservatives from moderates in its ideology crosstabs, but once again less liberal voters were also more inclined to support Gabbard: 9 percent of moderate or conservative voters said they supported Gabbard as opposed to 2 percent of both somewhat liberal and very liberal voters.
In fact, 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 News, Gabbard 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.
The nontraditional nature of Gabbard’s support, plus the criticism she’s gotten from Democrats like Hillary Clinton — who has gone as far as to suggest that the Republicans are “grooming” Gabbard, a “favorite of the Russians,” as a spoiler candidate — has certainly helped fuel the idea that Gabbard might run as a third-party candidate. Gabbard has denied it so far, although it is hard to believe her strategy is a winning one in the Democratic primary. While loyal, her base of support just isn’t that big, meaning she needs to make serious inroads with more traditional Democratic constituencies. On the one hand, her back and forth with Clinton may have given her a boost in recent weeks, so battling the party establishment could be a useful strategy. On the other hand, garnering approval from conservative media isn’t likely to improve her poor favorability among Democrats or attract the support she needs to win the primary, no matter how loyal her base is.
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CORRECTION (Nov. 14, 2019, 5:11 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the The Economist’s polling data. Gabbard’s support by gender, as shown by The Economist, comes from YouGov polling only; it is not an average of national polls.