Many of Gabbard’s current supporters are former Sanders supporters, who first came to know her when she quit as a DNC vice chair in 2016, saying that the process was rigged and she would endorse Sanders over Clinton. “I don’t know if [Sanders] has enough fight in him to go against the powers that be,” Dean Mincer, a 2016 Sanders delegate from Glidden, Iowa, told me at that coffee shop in Ames, worrying about how people would respond to the senator’s socialist views. “Tulsi’s more of a realist.”
Gabbard’s supporters are a mix of old hippie peaceniks, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, people who obsess over American imperialism, and former Trump voters. They are also people who just love that she’s a young woman of color who always talks about “what we in Hawaii call that spirit of Aloha,” as she’d said at the Wing Ding. “Aloha means so much more than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ as some of you may be familiar. What it really means is love and respect and a recognition that we are all connected, that we are all children of God, we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of the color of our skin, or where we come from, or who we love, or how we worship or if we worship.” At a recent event in Los Angeles, a woman told Gabbard she had cancer, and attributed it to a wire on her roof. “I’m now electrosensitive,” the woman said. She told Gabbard that she lived in her car and wanted to know what the candidate would do about Federal Communications Commission standards. “This is something I’m looking more into as I’m hearing from people like you who are raising these concerns,” Gabbard replied. A 16-year-old at the event told Gabbard he is frustrated that no one seems to care about the concerns of young people. “I’m smiling,” she told him, “because I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told that.”
She’s a presidential candidate and a member of Congress, but tracking down Gabbard wasn’t easy. In July, when she was in Milwaukee to speak at a veterans’ breakfast during a League of United Latin American Citizens conference—where I’d heard she’d been well received, talking about her own service—I ran into her while she was waiting in line for a vegan sandwich at the Milwaukee Public Market. She was serious about this race, she told me, and she wouldn’t be in it if she thought anyone else running could be commander in chief. I said we should do an interview, and she told me to get in touch with her new press secretary, but she couldn’t remember his last name, and neither could any of the staffers standing nearby whom she asked.
Contrast that with how her sister and a small circle of aides wear earpieces and cluster around her like a security detail. Gabbard’s husband, Abraham Williams, a trained videographer, uses a special camera stabilizer that gives a cinematic feel to the live-streams of her events. Her website features coding that isn’t quite sophisticated, but is slightly more than meets the eye: In the final days of trying to qualify for the September debate, it would generate random numbers just short of 130,000—the donor number she needed to hit—every time the page was refreshed, and then for weeks after had a one-minute countdown urging: “If you contribute in the next minute, we can hit our weekly goal.” The countdown reset with every refresh. (These tactics aren’t typical for candidates’ websites.) Her campaign now claims to have well over 130,000 donors. A spokesman wouldn’t say how many people are currently on staff, though her second-quarter Federal Elections Commission report showed salaries going to just six employees, for a total of $50,000 over three months, in addition to a few consulting fees.