‘I’m a weird one’: Tulsi Gabbard draws unusual mix of fans on the road

Adam Gabbatt in Lebanon, New Hampshire
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Tulsi Gabbard arrived late for her own campaign event at the Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon, New Hampshire. It meant she had to weave her way through the crowd of 200 people – her biggest audience yet in the state.

It gave Gabbard an opportunity to see the eclectic mix of supporters her curious 2020 presidential campaign has managed to assemble: a mostly male grab-bag of veterans, anti-war activists, ex-Bernie Sanders supporters, ex-Jill Stein votersand at least one Donald Trump fan.

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There was a bearded man wearing a multicolored wool hat, who was carrying a big stick that he kept banging on the floor. An ex-navy seaman was there, bantering with Gabbard about her service in the army.

A longtime Sanders-supporting carpenter pushed his way to the front as Gabbard passed, and declared that on shaking the candidate’s hand he had sensed “a real force of being”. At the back of the crowd an old man waved a sign that said: “Free Julian Assange. Stop the torture.”

It was an interesting time to attend a Gabbard event. The 39-year-old congresswoman, currently in her third term in the House, is coming off the back of a mild political storm after she was linked with being a Russian plant in the Democratic race, and many of her supporters were convinced of a Democratic-party-cum-mainstream-media conspiracy to depress her chances.

“Aloha!” Gabbard began – she is from Hawaii, something she mentions a lot – while her staff handed out campaign leaflets which had a picture of Gabbard and the words “A soldier’s heart”. (Gabbard is a major in the national guard and has served tours of Kuwait and Iraq. She mentions that a lot, too.)

Wearing her customary white blazer and standing on a wooden bench, Gabbard spoke slowly and deliberately. Gabbard believes that the US has spent too much money meddling in other country’s affairs, and is a fervent anti-interventionist. Her belief in scaling back the military shapes her politics and is the basis of her campaign pitch.

Her pitch was well-received.

Tulsi Gabbard supporters hold campaign signs in Columbia, South Carolina, on 27 October. Photograph: Logan Cyrus/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“I like the fact that she is active in the military, but also not a warmonger,” said Emily Cummings, who lives in Vermont, across the New Hampshire border.

Cummings, 31, is a big Sanders supporter, but if Gabbard is still in the race by the time the primary comes round – Vermont votes in March, three weeks after New Hampshire’s 11 February primary vote for the Democratic party’s White House nominee, she might plump for the congresswoman.

“The fact that she wants to reallocate money from the military back to our country, which is really, really important to me – we spend a ridiculous amount of money on weapons – that is one of the biggest reasons I support her, is taking money away from that machine,” Cummings said.

Gabbard says that the money saved by changing the US military’s role could be used to fund better healthcare (Gabbard believes in universal healthcare, but stops short of banning private healthcare, like some of her rivals), and tackling the climate crisis (Gabbard was an early supporter of the Green New Deal championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, but has since backed away from it).

That appealed to Kevin Dunwoody – the man who had felt a distinct surge of energy when he clasped Gabbard’s hand.

“We need a change in a big way. But I don’t know whether she can get the stars aligned enough to make it happen,” Dunwoody said. He supported Sanders in the Democratic primary, but voted for the Green party candidate, Jill Stein, in 2016.

“I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Hillary [Clinton],” Dunwoody said. This time he will vote for Gabbard.

“She’s one of the few that makes sense. But there’s no media coverage. She got some press coverage when Hillary said she was a spy, but the game is so fixed.”

It was a common complaint on Saturday that the media has not given enough attention to Gabbard’s campaign. But given her current position in the race – she’s polling ninth nationally, with 1% support – a share of the vote that has barely moved in six months – it is difficult to argue she deserves to be treated like a frontrunner.

Tulsi Gabbard waves to supporters in North Charleston, South Carolina, on 5 October. Photograph: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

In any case, Gabbard has experienced a surge in press coverage recently. As Dunwoody said, the boost came from a strange source: a number of media organizations reported that Clinton had accused Gabbard of being groomed by Russia ahead of 2020.

Clinton did not actually say that – in an interview on the Campaign HQ podcast Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by Republicans for a potential third-party run – and Gabbard’s campaign presumably knows this, but she has continued to fundraise on the back of the nonexistent accusation.

Gabbard has repeatedly denied she will run as an independent, but rumors persist. What is clear, however, is that of the Democratic candidates, Gabbard certainly has an unusual coalition. FiveThirtyEight found that her base is “overwhelmingly male”, mostly white and unusually conservative. Gabbard, seemingly, has set out to cultivate this, making regular appearances on Fox News and even giving an exclusive interview to the rightwing online news organization Breitbart.

The Guardian didn’t meet any “alt-right” Gabbard fans, but there were certainly some conservative-leaning supporters among the crowd.

“I’m a weird one because I’m not rabid anti-Trump,” said Tom Gill, a 57-year-old consultant from Albany, New Hampshire. Gill didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but is considering doing so in 2020.

“He’s done some good stuff and he’s getting slammed in the media for the most part. And Tulsi’s getting slammed in the media also.”

Gill listed prison reform, “calming relations with Korea” and pulling out of Syria as some of Trump’s achievements.

“Actually he’s very much like Tulsi,” Gill said of Trump. “Stop the wars, stop wasting lives, stop wasting money. It’s the root of many of the problems.”

There is no suggestion Gabbard’s campaign is working with Russia. But there is something a little strange going on with Russia’s treatment of her candidacy.

In October an analysis by the Alliance for Securing Democracy found that Gabbard was receiving unusual exposure from the Kremlin-backed RT news organization, while, according to the New York Times, Twitter hashtags favoring Gabbard have been amplified by fake accounts.

Gabbard is presumably aware of this – which made her response particularly intriguing when one attendee, a young boy called Cory, asked her what she would do to “make sure Russia does not interfere in our elections”.

“The greatest threat to our democracy right now is the fact that we have 14 states in our country that have no paper ballots, they have no record of the votes that are cast, due to electronic systems,” Gabbard said.

“It wouldn’t take much for a bad actor, whether it be another country or some individual rogue person, to go and hack into these systems, manipulate the number of votes that are cast for one candidate or another and completely change the outcome of the election.”

Russia interfered in the 2016 Clinton-Trump election in numerous ways, Robert Mueller’s investigation found. Russia spent millions of dollars creating fake social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using the accounts to post anti-Clinton and pro-Trump content. Russia used similar tactics to try to suppress voting among minority groups.

What Russia did not do is hack into polling booths or electoral rolls. Still, if people found Gabbard’s answer curious, no one said anything. After the event, her supporters, like 39-year-old Prince Agarwal – a former Sanders supporter – only wanted to focus on the positives.

“Bernie supporters, we like courage. And honestly, Tulsi has showed a lot of courage,” Agarwal said. He said the criticism of Gabbard and the accusation of Russia links only proved that her campaign was gaining strength. It’s not a claim backed up by polling, but it’s one many at Gabbard’s rally believed.

“They’re trying to trash her,” Agarwal said.

“The better we do, the more afraid they become.”