That doesn’t mean Gabbard can’t build a core of support from scratch. She is undeniably a very talented politician, as observers of Hawaii politics can attest. When she first ran for Congress in 2012, she trailed the primary front-runner, the well-known former mayor of Honolulu, by 45 points in early polling, but she wound up defeating him by 21 points. According to the most recent Honolulu Civil Beat poll, she is now Hawaii’s most popular elected official, with a 61 percent positive and 24 percent negative rating. She won her 2018 general election with a whopping 77 percent of the vote, albeit in a very blue district.
Gabbard’s brand in Hawaii is strong thanks in part to her unique combination of identities. As her website puts it, “As a mixed-race woman, combat veteran, martial artist, lifelong vegetarian, and practicing Hindu, she also is the embodiment of the type of diversity which is at the very heart of what America was founded upon.” However, it’s not clear that what helps her in Hawaii will help her in a nationwide primary. The U.S. has a smaller share of Pacific Islander and military voters than Hawaii does, for instance. Her youth and gender look like they could be electoral strengths, at least on the surface: We estimate that around 30 percent of the 2020 Democratic primary electorate will be millennials — a group that Gabbard, having been born in 1981, can uniquely appeal to. And there is evidence from 2018 that Democratic primary voters are going out of their way to vote for women in the Trump era. But on the flip side, it’s naive to assume Gabbard won’t face at least some ageism and sexism in how she’s perceived and covered.