ATLANTA – There was no alcohol at the debate watch party that the Tulsi Gabbard campaign threw for supporters in a music school here, but that didn’t mean attendees had to forgo the fun of drinking games.
“That’s three for Warren, zero for Tulsi!” said Alen Abramyan, a roofer and Armenian immigrant, counting up the questions the moderators posed to each candidate. He was texting with friends who were at home and taking a shot every time it seemed like Congresswoman Gabbard, D-Hawaii, had been skipped or slighted. “They’re going to be wasted in 10 seconds,” he predicted.
Twenty minutes later, he announced, “They’re wasted!”
For supporters of the congresswoman, who has been rising in polls and who seemed to pop up in more split-screen arguments in the recent Democratic primary debate than anyone else – facing an attack from Sen. Kamala Harris of California over her party loyalty, battling with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg over their military records as the only veterans on the stage – feeling left out and marginalized is their high.
Left out of presidential debates that they say focus too much on domestic policy and not enough about how the United States has been at war for most of their children’s lifetimes. Left out of a Democratic Party that seems, to them, bent on quashing real dissent and examination of its systematic corruption. Left out of a Republican Party that preaches but rarely practices fiscal conservatism, and, to them, seems to be just as corrupt.
There were members of the armed forces and people from Hawaii now far from home. And, from an informal survey of the crowd, they’re often anti-establishment folks or so-called chaos voters who wanted to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2016, and when they couldn’t, voted for Donald Trump instead. She appears to be more popular among Republicans than Democrats in Iowa, according to a political scientist’s analysis. She had the support of 10% of independents in a Quinnipiac University poll of New Hampshire that was published earlier this month.
Ask Gabbard’s supporters why they’re die-hard for her, and certain things come up: her noninterventionist foreign policy stance and her insistence that the United States get out of the business of policing the world, as well as civil liberties, such as the right not to be spied on by the National Security Agency. Authenticity and integrity also come up. They often cite Gabbard’s 16 years of military service and her two tours of duty in the Middle East; she’s still active in the National Guard.
Over the past month, Gabbard has gone from being a “huh” on the debate stage – as in how does she keep qualifying (she’s made every one but the September debate) – to a genuine thorn in the side of front-runners and the Democratic National Committee. The Trump War Room Twitter account, affiliated with the president’s reelection campaign, tweeted out a remark that Gabbard made during the Atlanta debate last week: “Our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people,” along with a 100 emoji, which is commonly used as shorthand for 100%.
Criticizing her own party on national television while vying to represent the Democrats in the 2020 general election is an unorthodox strategy. So is labeling Hillary Clinton, the last nominee, “the queen of warmongers” and the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long,” as Gabbard did in a tweet in October after Clinton suggested in an interview that the GOP was “grooming” Gabbard to run as a third-party candidate and that she was “a favorite of the Russians.” (Studies of Kremlin-run propaganda do show that Gabbard is mentioned more often and more positively than other Democratic candidates.)
She is the only person on the stage who seems to have an issue with everyone next to her, the only one telling fellow Democrats that they’re all corrupt and they’re all bad.
Coincidentally, that’s the same reason people like Trump.
“We’ve certainly seen an increase in momentum recently,” said her father, Mike Gabbard, a Hawaii state senator. “Thank you, Hillary.”
Setting Gabbard, who is the first practicing Hindu member of Congress, even further apart is the way she has come across in debates as if she were a leader beamed in from an apocalyptic future (or the Divergent series) with her all-white pantsuit, her streak of white hair and her unique manner of delivering answers in an affectless monotone straight into the camera, even when addressing other candidates, as if trying to inject her words straight into the veins of the American people.
The 38-year-old was the most-searched candidate during most debates, regardless of her speaking time.
Gabbard’s Democratic rivals have made barbed references to her frequent appearances on Fox News; her meeting with then-President-elect Trump in 2016; and her even more criticized meeting with President Bashar Assad while on a trip to Syria, and how she refused to call him a war criminal.
She was the last candidate to qualify for the Atlanta debate, barely reaching the requirement of polling above 3% in four national polls less than a week before the DNC’s deadline. Her single-digit national polling numbers (with slightly higher single-digit numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire) indicate she has an incredibly long shot to be the nominee.
What’s missing from the analysis, though, is that Gabbard’s outsider status is only making her stronger, according to watch-party attendees who see themselves as part of a growing community of unlikely allies, unified across party lines by how much they love Gabbard and by how much they’re fed up with politics.
At the watch party, the room was fired up the second Gabbard walked in, half an hour after midnight.
“Tulsi! Tulsi! Tulsi!” they chanted.
Gabbard did not hold back when she took the stage. She called out her rivals for perpetuating “the Bush-Clinton-Trump doctrine of intervention and regime-change wars” and for being “stuck in this Washington establishment elite mind-set” that “underestimate the voices of the people in this country across party lines.”
All she heard in the debate, she said, was “more of the same, more smears and lies and misinformation because they’re afraid of the truth.”
“They’re scared of Tulsi!” someone shouted.
But here in this room, she was also softer and more approachable than she has come across in any debate. She praised her supporters for the “incredible, beautiful, unifying coalition” they were building. She didn’t ask for money, but for everyone there to be her messengers.
She sounded almost like a spiritual leader, and a little like Marianne Williamson, the author and presidential candidate who hasn’t been in a debate since July.
Faced with criticism, Gabbard said, it was necessary “that we fight back with aloha and with the truth. That we fight back with strength and with love and with light. This is the only way that we defeat this darkness that has cast a shadow over our country, over our brothers and sisters, over our people for so long. Are you in?”
Of course they were.
“Tulsi! Tulsi! Tulsi!”
Who was in that room?
Colin Porter, an ROTC student from Athens, Georgia, said he registered as a Democrat specifically to vote for Gabbard and her foreign policy of noninterventionism.
Had she been on a phone call with the new Ukrainian president, he said, he believed Gabbard would withhold aid, too, “because I think probably Gabbard’s position is to reduce military aid to a lot of varied countries, and she’d do it regardless,” he said. “And I agree with that. I don’t think it’s the U.S.’ responsibility.”
“I feel betrayed by the Republican Party,” said his father, Chris Porter, a corporate pilot who was also there cheering Gabbard on. He’s an undecided conservative who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but wouldn’t rule it out for 2020.
They’d been joined by Lorenzo, a defense worker who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because he’s under review to join the National Guard. In talking about Gabbard, he mentioned Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex. He wouldn’t be the last to mention Eisenhower.
A young bearded man in a fleece vest approached them with high-fives. He was a law student named James Lyman who had reluctantly voted for Clinton in 2016.
Like many who came out that night, he saw Gabbard’s meeting with Assad as positive. “All she ever did was meet with him. That doesn’t mean she supports him. She also met with the opposition in Syria,” Lyman said. “Talking to people and diplomacy used to be valued. Democrats used to support that.”
Gabbard’s fiery anti-establishment stances have earned her support from Joe Rogan, an extremely popular podcaster with libertarian views who likes to rail against politically correct culture and wokeness. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey made the maximum personal donation to her campaign after the first debate.
Gabbard’s support is, according to several polls, overwhelmingly male. They’ve also said that it doesn’t hurt that she’s good looking and surfs.
“It’s a phenomenon,” says Garland Favorito, a retired systems analyst who says he’s “Tulsi or bust” – meaning he won’t vote Democratic unless Gabbard is the nominee. “She’s [former congressmen] Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich wrapped up in a more attractive package.”
Paul and Kucinich both ran for president and both became conduits for noninterventionist, anti-establishment voices within their own parties. Many of the people at the watch party mentioned that they started supporting Gabbard after she stepped down as DNC vice chair to endorse Sanders’ 2016 run for the party’s nomination.
The watch party was only a three-minute drive from the debate at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, but it felt even more on the fringe than that.
Whereas Gabbard’s reception among her fellow Democrats had been icy, here, the atmosphere was warm and folksy. The food on offer was Costco pizza, lemonade served out of one of those orange coolers that Super Bowl winners dump on their coaches’ heads, and a sloppy tray of overcooked penne with marinara sauce. Two college students from Hawaii who had taken a gap year to become full-time volunteers manned the merchandise table.
Her father had brought along three friends with whom he played in a folk band back in high school in the 1960s. They sang Simon and Garfunkel and a song Mike had written for his daughter: “She’ll do the right thing for you and me / Tulsi in 2020.”
Her uncle Bill Gabbard, who just moved to Atlanta, said there’s no way she’s going to mount a third-party candidacy: “We’ve known her her whole life, and when she says that’s not gonna happen, that’s not gonna happen.”
Joining Tulsi as she rushed to the party from the debate were her husband, Abraham Williams, who was manning a video camera, plus both of his parents. Tulsi’s sister, Vrindavan Gabbard, who famously complained on Twitter about Tulsi’s lack of airtime during the first debate, had since quit her job to work full time on her sister’s campaign.
Vrindavan stood on a chair to get a group photo of Tulsi with whoever was left of the 150 merry outsiders who had lasted until the end of the night. Some stayed until 2 a.m., chatting about Tulsi and how she had made them feel like they finally had a community and someone they could trust and believe in.
At the end of her speech, Tulsi looked around the room and apologized for the terrible cold she’s been fighting off. “I wish I could personally give you a hug,” she said. “You don’t want my germs. Trust me. They’re terrible.”
“Give them to [Joe] Biden!” someone shouted.
“No,” she said, laughing. “I don’t wish this on anyone.”