DES MOINES — Matthew Hunt’s pledge to support a presidential candidate started with a sign.

Not a mystic apparition from above, but an actual billboard on Eisenhower Avenue in Mason City, where he saw a face and a name in bright red letters: “Tulsi.”

“Let’s not kid around: I thought she was attractive, so I looked her up on Facebook,” said Hunt, a 53-year-old service technician. That led him to learn about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s antiwar stance, her military experience and, more recently, her public spat with 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. When he heard Gabbard (D-Hawaii) talk about the importance of living “Aloha” at a recent campaign event, he decided to throw his support to a woman on the fringes of Democratic politics.

AD

“Tulsi comes out with her message of peace, sitting around and talking to people like adults and sitting at the table with everyone,” Hunt said. “I have a 17-year-old son. He’s never seen a year of peace.”

AD

While the top tier of presidential candidates is building robust operations with field offices and strategists in Iowa to boost poll numbers and build momentum, Gabbard’s campaign is banking on something a little different: prolifically posting signs.

In major parts of the state, Gabbard’s image is more visible than any other Democratic candidate’s. There are billboards along highways in Dubuque and Davenport. They appear near a Walmart in Mason City and over a Pueblo Viejo restaurant in Des Moines.

There are yard signs placed on homes with peeling paint, overflowing trash and windows covered in cardboard. There are signs in yards near the state fairgrounds, including one surrounded by a Halloween-ready graveyard of cardboard tombstones and cobwebs.

For a campaign polling in the low single digits with virtually no campaign infrastructure in this first-in-the-nation caucus state, the visibility campaign might not be a winning strategy — but it amplifies the appearance of influence in the Democratic primary.

AD
AD

Campaign officials say they hope that the billboards will draw in voters like Hunt, who will be interested enough to look her up on the Web — and connect to her reservoir of online support from an unusual mix of peace-loving noninterventionists, moderates looking for an anti-establishment Democrat, white supremacists, veterans, and social media users who sometimes refer to her as “Mommy.”

But while Hunt is drawn to Gabbard’s hesitance to engage in military conflicts abroad, some Democrats fear the fractures she might cause within the party.

Clinton last week gave voice to the worry that Gabbard — a frequent critic of the Democratic National Committee who has become a regular on Fox News and met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — might be a “Russian asset.” Clinton went on to say Gabbard is being “groomed” to run as a third-party candidate, threatening to sap votes from the eventual Democratic nominee and assist the reelection of President Trump.

AD
AD

Gabbard hit back hard, calling Clinton a “queen of warmongers” who disrespected someone who had served on active military duty. Gabbard has repeatedly denied any interest in running as a third-party candidate in the general election, but those declarations have done little do stymie speculation. The fears of a third-party run increased Friday, when Gabbard announced she would not run for reelection to Congress.

If she chooses that route, voters like Hunt say they will indeed cast their ballots for her. It’s this early commitment that might give Gabbard outsized power in Democratic politics.

“Mayor Pete didn’t impress me, and Elizabeth Warren, I feel, she’s walking the DNC’s line,” Hunt said. “Joe Biden’s too old school. And Bernie — nothing against age, but I think he’s too old now. Beto O’Rourke, when he came out and said you’re going take out AR-15s — that was enough for me. Tulsi is my pick.”

AD
AD

He said he does not know what he would do if he didn’t see those signs.

Spreading a message

The signs started showing up in Des Moines a little before the state fair.

Linda Westergaard, a city council member, recalled thinking to herself as she was driving around: “Someone’s really getting to work in the neighborhood.”

“They were being very strategic,” Westergaard said.

The signs were being placed along Euclid Avenue and University Avenue, major thoroughfares on the way to the fairgrounds. Still she wondered: How did a candidate with such low name recognition garner so many early supporters?

“Two men just came up and asked me if they could put a sign there,” recalled Fred Lee, 74, as he tried fixing his old car in his driveway, near the front yard with a “Tulsi” sign. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’

AD

“They gave me a business card to call if I wanted to take it down, but I lost it,” Lee said, shrugging.

AD

Lee said he has never voted before but that he plans to vote in 2020. He has been more consumed with fixing his car than anything and could only name two candidates.

“Joe Biden’s running, ain’t he?” Lee said. “Him, and Tulsi. I don’t even know her last name. Tulsi is her first name, right?”

Still, around the east side of town, the whisper campaign showed some resonance. It is an area where residents complain about violence and gangs, and are longing for redevelopment. These are not the typical issues that candidates emphasize in mostly agricultural Iowa, and residents here said they tend to see volunteers asking to support their candidates much later on — if they do at all.

AD

So, when Mireya Bayardo, 41, saw two men placing signs along her street, she was eager to ask them some questions. Bayardo moved to the United States from Mexico two decades ago, but said she became a citizen only in the past year.

AD

She was certain she would vote against Trump, but there were so many candidates that she found it hard to figure out whom to support.

“It was good to have someone out here asking for a vote in my community,” Bayardo said as she stood outside her door this week. “She seems smart. I like that she’s a woman.”

“And I want to go to the Navy, so it would be good to have someone who is a vet,” said her daughter, Perla Contreras, 14.

“Your brothers say not to vote for her because she can’t win,” Bayardo replied. “But who am I going to vote for then?”

A 10-minute drive away, Luis Ruz, 41, had planted a sign on his house, too, because Gabbard seemed “new and fresh.” A lifelong Republican, Ruz had switched parties because he was tired of Trump’s flip-flopping.

AD

“He said he was going to help working people, but he gave the tax breaks to rich people,” said Ruz, a field organizer for the local laborers’ union. “I believe a president has to be strong. I believe in strong immigration policy, but you can’t say you’re going to build a wall one day and not do it the next day.”

AD

Gabbard’s words did not seem empty, Ruz said. He said she showed her resolve when she didn’t back down from her belief when one of the most well-known women in American politics sideswiped her.

“She showed that she was strong,” Ruz said. “But this sign, it’s just for now. We’ll see who comes around next.”

With merely $2.5 million cash on hand reported for her campaign, Gabbard must now find ways to convert voters with a passing interest into evangelists for her candidacy.

AD

In Cedar Rapids, Bart Bryant was trying to help people to come around. Since he cast his first presidential ballot in 2004, the 37-year-old rock crusher has always supported the winning candidate. As the 2020 election nears, Bryant said he has grown tired of Trump’s antics.

“Maybe the dude needs to chill on Twitter,” Bryant said.

After seeing a friend post about Gabbard, he decided to attend one of her campaign events. To Bryant, she represented the opposite of Trump: patient, thoughtful, engaged. She handed out copies of the Constitution and spoke about being for the people. As an Iraq War veteran, he appreciated her reverence for sending troops into battle — a privilege he felt past presidents had abused.

While watching the debates, he later appreciated when Gabbard called out Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) for sending people to prison on drug arrests while laughing about using marijuana in college and, later, when Gabbard said she wanted to pull troops out of the Middle East in “a smart way.” It showed she could be tough but not mean-spirited, he said.

AD

“It’s funny how everyone is basically saying we’re going to give everyone health care, college and education and no real way to pay for it all other than we’re going to tax the [expletive] out of super rich people,” Bryant said. “You can’t tax them into poverty. What can help pay for that is not spending billions of dollars every month in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria.”

He eventually reached out to the campaign to see how he could help. Much to his surprise, he was asked to host a Gabbard event in his backyard earlier this month. He put up some tiki torches and strung up some lights. His mother and Gabbard’s mother both made chili; his mom’s, meat-filled, Gabbard’s mother’s, spicy vegetarian. About 40 people showed up.

“The last election felt like the lesser of two evils,” he said, “but this time you can have a candidate that can be accepted by all Americans. She can be the baby bear porridge of politics.”

Gabbard received polite applause and spoke for about an hour. Some of his neighbors were as impressed as he was, he recalled. Days later, three more yard signs were in his neighborhood. They read: “Tulsi.”

Holly Bailey, Anu Narayanswamy and Alice Crites contributed to this report.