Tulsi Gabbard’s Ghost Town
In a state where campaign organization often predicts the success of the candidate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign for president in Iowa seems to be missing a key part—paid staff focused on the influential state.
With zero paid campaign staff in the state, Gabbard demonstrates that either Iowa is not key to her long-term strategy, or she does not understand Iowa’s importance as the site of the first caucus. These two conclusions are troubling for a candidate continuing to poll so low. Her decision directly contrasts that of Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who are currently increasing their Iowa hires and expanding their offices across the state (Des Moines Register).
In contrast, Gabbard’s Iowa campaign is run solely by volunteers. According to Des Moines volunteer Gail Buffington, who hosted an event for Gabbard on July 31, there are approximately six volunteers in Iowa with whom she stays in frequent contact, and none of them receive directives or guidance from Tulsi’s national office.
“I don’t know if she has a director or staff,” said Buffington. “Her organization is completely grassroots and volunteer-based, and guidance seems pretty low-level.”
According to Buffington, Gabbard’s Iowa volunteers include highly-motivated retirees and families from Iowa, Nebraska, Arizona, and even Australia who are operating on their own dime. These volunteers host debate watch parties, hold signs, and knock doors.
Yet with these unorthodox strategies, the Hawaii Congresswoman has gained a small foothold. East Des Moines, a working-class neighborhood, has at least seven “Tulsi” yard signs distributed throughout the area. Such signs are the only symbols of political memorabilia in the area and are placed everywhere from seemingly abandoned homes to active communities. According to a Des Moines Register article from August 28, Gabbard’s volunteers regularly distribute the signs and ask residents—even those who do not support Gabbard—if they can leave a sign in the yard.
The Des Moines Register reported that FEC filings reported Gabbard has spent $126,000 on yard signs so far in 2019. But history suggests this may not be a winning strategy in the state of Iowa. In 2018 Iowa Starting Line said, “the majority of Democratic strategists don’t see yard signs as critical to electing candidates.”
Despite the non-traditional Iowa campaign that relies more on billboards and volunteers than trained, paid staff and Iowa strategy, Gabbard’s supporters remain enthusiastic about the candidate.
“Just about everything (about Rep. Gabbard) appeals to me,” Buffington said. “Her strength, grace, intelligence, legislation, and foreign policy can convince anyone who meets her.”
At a campaign stop in Davenport on September 1, Gabbard announced that she was in the race through the Iowa caucuses. The work of her Iowa volunteers will be tested on February 3, 2020, when Iowans will be the first in the nation to cast their votes in the primary.