I suspect foul play.
The 2016 election cycle made me sick of politics.
I sounded like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch afterward— “All the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!” Yet, here we are again. Like the Grinch who could not stop Christmas, we are finding out that, in spite of our best efforts to shut everything down, the election is coming.
The Democratic presidential nominee is…Joe Biden. (I know, we were rooting for the DNC to pull a Pilot Pete move and breakup with Joe to get back with someone else that we all liked better anyway.) Bring out the popcorn and painkillers—here come the presidential debates.
Then COVID-19 brought our nation to a grinding halt. Warranted obsession with the pandemic captivated our outstandingly-short attention spans.
In all the chaos, we overlooked an untimely political demise. The strange case of Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential ambitions warrants a long-overdue autopsy. Peculiar circumstances surrounded her campaign from start to finish.
A down-and-dirty dissection reveals the three most probable causes of death for her candidacy.
1. Inexperience and low name-recognition.
Gabbard sought the Democratic nomination from January 2019 to March 2020. Her inexperience in conducting presidential campaigns showed. In an early fiasco, her campaign manager learned from a reporter that Gabbard was running for president… after Gabbard announced her candidacy on television.
Gabbard struggled to muster support at the polls. She finished behind Warren, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar in the delegate count, despite dropping out after them. She ended her campaign polling at just 1% in the Georgia Democratic Primary.
I am not a political consultant, but even I know that “Who?” is not the response candidates want from voters. A Quinnipiac poll found that 64% of those surveyed “‘[hadn’t] heard enough’ about Gabbard to form a positive or negative opinion.” Compare that number with the mere 9% of respondents who said they knew little about Sander’s stances.
Recently, I messaged a left-leaning friend of mine. I asked for her opinion about Gabbard, and she replied, “[I’m going to] be honest[.] I have no idea who that is.” My educated, generally politically engaged friend—a typical Democratic voter—had no clue that Gabbard ever ran for president.
Ironic that in a political market saturated with information, Gabbard’s campaign suffered from an unexplainable inability to get information into the hands of voters. Not ironic. Suspicious. Which brings me to…
2. Lack of attention.
Only Biden and Sanders campaigned longer than Gabbard. She remained the last candidate of color and the last female candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, though you would not have known this from the press coverage.
In January, an editorial published in USA Today bemoaned a then-upcoming, all-white Democratic debate, explaining that Andrew Yang failed to qualify and (incorrectly) referring to him as “the remaining minority.” The piece acknowledged Gabbard’s existence exactly zero times. This seems either a case of astronomical ignorance or malicious omission. I am not sure which is worse.
Elsewhere, an article from the Washington Post remarked on Bloomberg and Warren in the context of Super Tuesday and then enthusiastically droned, “Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is also competing.” Such generous impartiality overwhelms me.
And then there was the time that Google mysteriously closed Gabbard’s advertising account for six hours. This debacle, which led to a lawsuit, occurred on the days of the first two Democratic debates. For reference, Gabbard briefly surged to the position of the most-searched-for candidate on Google after the first debate, meaning that her campaign faced a time-sensitive advertising opportunity.
Overall, Gabbard received disproportionately less total news coverage and disproportionately more negative news coverage. I will also note that I do not recall reading a single news alert on my phone when Gabbard dropped out of the race.
The bizarre and collective cold-shoulder given to Gabbard by the media prompted her to state in February that voters “really haven’t had a chance to hear my message… because there’s been an almost total corporate media blackout since the day that I started running for president.” I find it hard to disagree with her.
Unfortunately for Gabbard, media sources were not the only ones who wanted her un-invited to Thanksgiving dinner…
3. Towed by the party line.
The only group who liked Tulsi Gabbard less than left-leaning media sources was the Democratic Party. Do not expect to see Gabbard on this year’s Christmas card.
Gabbard’s past record demonstrates her willingness to go to fisticuffs with her party. Gabbard clashed with Democrats during the Obama administration, siding with Republicans on a matter of Middle Eastern foreign policy. During the 2016 presidential race, she resigned from her position as vice-chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and endorsed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.
The DNC exacted revenge. The primary debates became a nightmare for Gabbard.
In order to qualify for the September debate, candidates had to poll at 2% or higher in at least four separate, approved polls. Gabbard exceeded 2% support in 26 polls. Only two of those polls appeared on the DNC’s approved list.
The DNC altered its qualifying rules for the March debate, arguing, “The threshold will reflect where we are in the race…” By this point, only Gabbard, Sanders, and Biden still sought the nomination. Miraculously, the new rules managed to exclude just Gabbard.
On the day of the debate, Gabbard tweeted that 49% of voters wanted her to participate and posted a clip from an interview… with Fox News. A poignant statement on Gabbard’s homelessness in the Democratic Party.
Four days later, Gabbard suspended her presidential campaign.
The results of the autopsy are conclusive: Death by a thousand cuts. Tulsi Gabbard got a raw deal. Why?
From one perspective, she represented a complex candidate in a system built for the binary. She leaned left on social and economic issues but leaned right on foreign policy matters. She campaigned on ending regime change wars and fighting terrorism—important, but unfashionable issues. Her fan base included deeply conservative voters. A Republican friend of mine said, “I [can’t] help but like her.” Gabbard was relatable.
From a more cynical perspective, as the same friend argued, she would have wiped the floor with Biden and Sanders. Her competency and reasonability would have made her opponents look insane. She did not have the votes, and the debates would have been nothing but bad optics for the two gentlemen.
I do not claim that Gabbard would have won the nomination. I am mainly dumbfounded at the lack of subtlety of the persecution against her.
Gabbard’s issue resided in the fact that she was not the darling of the Democratic Party. Her candidacy was a Cinderella story, but without the ball or the gown because the DNC fairy godmother did not stop by.
For Gabbard, the race was not about a glass ceiling. It was about glass slippers that did not fit.