Ron DeSantis’ campaign launch fizzled like one of Elon Musk’s early rocket prototypes.
The Florida governor has been preparing for months to run for president, but his official campaign launch committed a cardinal political sin – offering his opponents, especially ex-President Donald Trump, an opening to turn him into an object of ridicule.
First, DeSantis made the unorthodox choice to make his long-awaited run official not among regular voters, but on a Twitter Spaces audio stream alongside Musk, the billionaire owner of the social media platform, which meant the biggest moment in his political career played out through a disembodied voice.
Worse, the launch interview was delayed and plagued by glitches. The cliche that the best day of any presidential candidate’s campaign is when they first announce will not apply to DeSantis, who managed to obliterate his own message. And even when the event got up and running, it felt more like a fan fest for Musk, as various conservative opinion leaders called in to boost DeSantis but seemed more effusive about his host.
“It came across like he was a talk radio host not the future leader of the free world,” former Trump administration communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
If DeSantis is to beat Trump, who roughly doubled him up 53% to 26% in a new CNN poll of the GOP race released on Wednesday, he will have to run an almost perfect campaign. So his halting launch was hardly a promising start, especially since it undermined his core message that he has the kind of discipline and focus that could make his presidency far more successful than Trump’s term.
The former president’s allies – who mounted savage weeks of attacks on the former Trump protégé, whom he clearly believes is his biggest primary threat – could barely contain glee at the fiasco that overtook DeSantis’ big moment.
“Ron DeSantis’ botched campaign announcement is another example of why he is just not ready for the job. The stakes are too high and the fight to save America is too critical to gamble on a first-timer who is clearly not ready for prime time,” said Karoline Leavitt, spokeswoman for the Trump-aligned Make America Great Again PAC.
Even President Joe Biden’s campaign got in on the act, tweeting out a link to his fundraising machine, which, it quipped, worked – unlike the DeSantis audio stream.
DeSantis made an attempt to spin away the fiasco by releasing a video boasting that he “broke the internet” because so many people were excited to tune into hear him on Twitter Spaces.
But by handing a rival as ruthless as Trump an early gift, which will no doubt be retold in increasingly withering and humiliating versions by the great showman in his coming campaign rallies, DeSantis is guilty of a major error – one that is especially surprising since his aides had months to choreograph his first official move on the national stage. He is now under immediate pressure to change the narrative lest the chaotic events on Wednesday become a metaphor for his campaign.
Even before it became official, his shadow campaign had appeared to deflate in recent weeks following Trump’s rebound, some odd moments on a DeSantis foreign tour, and his failure to deter other rivals from jumping into what is now a crowded primary field. DeSantis’ flailing start may now offer some hope to candidates polling in single digits – like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott – that he’s on an irreversible downward trajectory.
DeSantis has bigger problems than a failing audio stream
Yet in the end, if the Florida governor can shake off the embarrassment of Wednesday evening, his bid to win the GOP nomination will not be decided by the malfunctioning Twitter Spaces audio stream. It’s worth remembering that Trump, for instance, carries far more baggage than a lackluster campaign launch, given his two impeachments, an indictment in a hush money case in which he has pleaded not guilty, the $5 million judgment after he was found liable for sexual assault and defamation, and several other ongoing investigations related to his conduct after the 2020 election and handling of classified documents. Trump has denied wrongdoing in all cases, but he also has a long catalog of wild and outrageous behavior that even some of his Republican supporters consider beyond the pale.
But DeSantis already had a mountain to climb before he made his bid official in farcical fashion on Wednesday. He is trying to do something that no one in the Republican Party has managed to do since the ex-president came down his golden escalator in 2015 – beat him. And while DeSantis’ rivals and what he calls the “legacy media” will fixate over the problems at his campaign launch, the real test of the coming months is whether he can land a compelling anti-Trump attack.
When the Twitter Spaces stream did cough into life, DeSantis laid out an unmistakable argument as to why his discipline and record means that he, and not Trump, should lead the GOP into the next election. He presented a ruthless brand of stripped-down conservative cultural ideology while lashing out at “elites” and the media that is calculated to delight the wider primary audiences he will meet in the coming weeks. DeSantis left no doubt that he plans to lead the most unapologetically right-wing administration in history, which would hit Washington like a wrecking ball if he wins in 2024.
He accused Biden of imposing “medical authoritarianism” during the Covid-19 pandemic, vowed an overhaul of the whole “enchilada” of public health authorities in Washington, claimed Democrats were obsessed with “woke ideology” and of weaponizing the federal government to persecute conservatives while infringing basic American freedoms.
DeSantis held up his own record of taking on liberals in schools, business and health care as proof that he could put the US on a fundamentally different course that mirrors his leadership in Florida, while implying that little would get done if the ex-president ended up back in the Oval Office.
“Governing is not entertainment,” DeSantis said, making a clear but unspecific critique of the pandemonium that rocked the US during Trump’s presidential term, before indirectly rebuking the ex-president for losing in 2020 and harming Republican hopes in the 2022 midterms.
“We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years. We must look forward and not backwards.”
No national message
It was notable that DeSantis, while obviously appealing to a Republican primary audience, had almost nothing to say to Americans who do not share his stark conservative ideology. There was no outreach to a wider, less partisan audience. And no sense that DeSantis, if elected, would represent all Americans or has any vision for how he would lead the Western world at a time of great international instability.
Instead, DeSantis concentrated on effectively arguing that Trump, for all his popularity in the GOP, has become a massive distraction.
But his decision not to mention the former president by name underscores not just the strength of Trump’s campaign, but also the fact that DeSantis has not solved one of the most pressing questions of his candidacy – how to take on Trump without alienating his supporters who might be open to a less erratic “Make America Great Again” flag bearer.
Another challenge for DeSantis is that while he might be making a perfectly logical case for why it’s time for the party to move on from Trump, Republican activists’ connections with the ex-president are more emotional than intellectual.
Nominating Trump might not be a politically sound move because it risks turning off the swing-state moderate voters who deserted the GOP in the midterm elections last year and in 2020. But Trumpism is a feeling as much as an ideology. The ex-president’s supporters have an almost spiritual kinship with their hero. And even many grassroots Republicans who have reservations about his behavior are protective of him against attacks by those whom he has portrayed as his enemies.
This hard truth, more than a poorly organized and embarrassing campaign launch, may be the factor that dooms DeSantis, if he is unable to overtake Trump.
For now, after a disaster of his campaign’s own making, he is under pressure to immediately engage voters and to show that Wednesday’s announcement will not hamper him from building powerful campaign operations in early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire, where he needs to perform strongly to have any hope of taking down Trump.
His campaign might seek consolation in the fact that while Musk’s early attempts to join the space race were marked by frequent misfires for his rockets, his willingness to take risks and embrace failures ended with him playing a key role in the US effort to return to the moon and to go onto Mars. DeSantis can only hope he can emulate that trajectory.