Tulsi Gabbard is a bit of an enigma. There’s her meeting with Bashar Assad and seeming defense of the Syrian regime. There’s Steve Bannon saying nice things about her. Russian Television talks about her well in excess of her standing in the nomination contest. She’s also spent most of the past two decades on active duty or in the reserves.
If you want to defend her, there’s plenty to work with. If you think she’s Putin’s take on the Manchurian Candidate, there’s no hard evidence, but she’s sure convenient to his aims, as Hillary Clinton decided to publicly mention recently.
Geopolitical conspiracies aside, she’s made a few non-traditional choices. In 2016, she broke with the DNC and endorsed Bernie Sanders, setting off a bit of a war with then Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz. At the time I figured she was setting herself up as Bernie’s successor for 2020. As we know, there wasn’t a vacancy.
She ran anyway. A whole lot of congresspeople did too. Now Eric Swalwell is out. Seth Moulton, out. Tim Ryan, gone. They’re all focusing on keeping their House seats. Gabbard is all in, announcing last week she will not attempt to keep her seat in Hawaii.
Tulsi has run a more successful campaign than her peers. She qualified for the fourth debate, three in total so far. The others participated in three debates combined. She consistently registers in the Real Clear Politics average. Her national numbers aren’t great, but they border on the Top 10, in a field that once had almost thirty contestants.
But she’s not going to be the nominee. Tom Steyer won’t either, but he’s wealthy AF and bored. Andrew Yang won’t get picked, but he wasn’t holding office anywhere and this is just the start of whatever he’s going to be over the next decade or two, whether it’s a politician, or this winds up being great brand building for his next startup.
None of the other candidates are making any sort of trade off to keep going. Unless he has a miracle soon, Cory Booker will return to the comfy embrace of New Jersey voters to get re-elected to his Senate seat next November.
The only person who gave anything up is John Delaney, who chose not to run for re-election to the House back in 2018 so he could concentrate full time on not inspiring Iowans. Raise your hand if you knew who John Delaney was when he fell on the sword. Tulsi had a promising political career, he was a guy who made money in business, spent a few terms in Congress and got bored.
So what’s her play?
If we assume, and I think we should, that Putin isn’t putting her up to this, and assume she believes in exactly the things she keeps saying she believes in, there are a couple of possibilities:
She didn’t think she had much to lose
Being a junior member of Congress isn’t that much fun. AOC is the presently anointed successor to Bernie’s movement. She and the Squad are getting plenty of play. Otherwise you need to stick around for years to become a committee chairperson or move up the leadership ladder.
Gabbard was facing a tough primary challenge. From what I understand (my knowledge of Hawaiian politics is nonexistent), she’s angered a few influential people, and the primary competitor was legit. Unless someone is very committed to remaining in the House, that’s a lose/lose. Remaining in the presidential race gives her an out.
At a minimum, she’ll be able to make plenty of money on a media contract, likely with an entity on the right as a Democrat their viewers can live with. While there’s zero chance of her becoming the nominee, there’s a far higher chance Gabbard is a Fox News Contributor in 2021.
She’s running as a third party candidate next fall
As both parties become increasingly nationalized, it’s harder and harder for a candidate to find themselves out of step with their respective bases. Joe Biden has an established brand and the Obama Factor, so he might get away with it. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders each moved the center of gravity.
Gabbard isn’t going to find the oxygen to do that in 2020, and she’s decades away from building up the credits Biden has. The data is now showing she’s less popular with Hillary Clinton voters than Trump voters. The newest Economist/YouGov survey broke down favorability by who the voter said they picked in 2016.
Among Trump voters, she’s -6. With Clinton voters, Tulsi is -14. As a point of comparison, Biden registers -70 with Trump voters and +58 with Clinton voters.
If you measure based on ideology, Gabbard registers like this:
I guess we’ve found the ideological center of the country, and it’s Tulsi Gabbard. Even if her combination of positions doesn’t match that many voters, it sort of cancels out. While Clinton is claiming Gabbard will wind up running as a third party candidate as the type of spoiler Jill Stein was in 2016, the data indicates otherwise.
It’s hard to imagine Stein voters would have otherwise chosen Trump. It’s a lot easier to think voters who hated Clinton and Trump in 2016, but picked him, might instead opt for Gabbard this time. Remember, the election was effectively decided by the voters who did not approve of either major party candidate.
A similar thing is likely to occur in 2020. None of the candidates polled have positive national favorability ratings. None. Biden was previously one of the best liked. The past few months have taken a toll. He’s -8 nationally now. While his polling numbers in the Democratic primary contest have mostly held up, his national standing has not.
Because Trump is unpopular himself, Biden’s result in head-to-head matchups has not moved much. When Democrats worry about a third party candidate ruining things for them, this is what they mean. If a voter who disliked Biden and Trump would likely pick Uncle Joe as the lesser of evils, why complicate things?
In a Biden/Trump contest, I can see this happening. Gabbard takes some votes from Trump who might have otherwise switched to Biden. But what if it’s Elizabeth Warren? At the moment, Warren is more popular than Biden nationally. But Trump hasn’t dug in yet. This time next year, she would be much more divisive.
Then you can argue that Gabbard could actually serve to save the Democrats, by giving people who can’t imagine supporting Warren, but don’t like Trump another outlet. All of this is speculation. The key point is Gabbard is very different from Stein. Her entry as a third party contestant would have its own butterfly effect.
As an example, a new CNN/UNH poll in New Hampshire breaks out voters who chose Trump in 2016, but are planning on participating in the Democratic primary next February. Gabbard is by far the top choice (21%) of these individuals. Self-described Republicans who plan on crossing over in the primary are 59% favorable, 7% unfavorable on her. Remember, this is a swing state next November.
Given she’s persona non grata and then some with the Democratic establishment, and apparently blocked and/or bored back in Hawaii, it seems like she both has nothing to lose and will likely become a third party candidate.
Get ready for Third Party Tulsi, coming next fall to a ballot near you. She’s not going to become president. She will impact the contest. Just probably not in the ways we’d immediately expect.