Very Online and Very Glitchy: DeSantis Announces for President
After nearly 30 minutes of embarrassing Twitter technical difficulties and ruthless mocking from both of his top rivals for the presidency, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finally managed to make his White House run official on Wednesday night.
“I am running for president of the United States,” DeSantis said in a Twitter Spaces conversation, “to lead our great American comeback.”
Unfortunately for the DeSantis campaign, as he launched into his stump speech and hit on his now-familiar set of targets—COVID public health policies, Disney, “DEI” and “ESG”—the public listener count on the Twitter Spaces steadily declined from 500,000 to around 250,000 before rising slightly to 300,000.
The audience was, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) gleefully pointed out, less than the peak number of people who watched her play a video game online in 2020.
Those who stuck around for the conversation between DeSantis, Twitter CEO Elon Musk, and billionaire David Sacks were treated to questions and non sequiturs from allied figures.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), for instance, spent much of his time on the floor praising Musk directly and telling him he was the first congressman to own a Tesla. It earned him a “thank you” from Musk.
Some 30 minutes into the event, Fox News went so far as to brand his launch a “disaster” on its homepage.
At the close of the event, Sacks felt compelled to paper over the botched launch with a familiar platitude. “It’s not how you start,” he said. “It’s how you finish.”
That DeSantis’ announcement backfired so spectacularly was, perhaps, a predictable confirmation of long-existing doubts about his readiness for the rigors of a presidential campaign.
For Trump backers, that was certainly the takeaway. Alex DeGrasse, a top advisor to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a key Trump ally, said that “everyone is talking about how much of a disaster” the launch was.
“Today’s epic failure will be written about for years as not only the end of the DeSantis campaign before it even began, but also the total self-destruction of his political career,” DeGrasse said. “All this overly hyped launch did was cement the very fact that he just isn’t ready for prime time.”
The fact that DeSantis had chosen to launch on Twitter at all drew serious derision and questions about his strategy. And in his pre-campaign travels, observers in both parties seized on the governor’s relative inexperience with retail politics and deep aversion to the press.
Though the Florida governor remains the highest polling non-Trump candidate in the field, he trails the former president by at least 30 points in the FiveThirtyEight rolling average.
“If he doesn’t bump plus 10 points within the first 72 hours,” a former Trump 2016 campaign adviser told The Daily Beast, “he’s toast.”
Liam Donovan, a GOP lobbyist and strategist, told The Daily Beast that most people will ultimately forget the technical difficulties that dogged the launch—even if some damage is done already.
“Once he got past the canned opening and Musk’s self-indulgent media critiques, DeSantis managed to articulate themes that stand to resonate with GOP primary voters,” Donovan said. “But with blood in the water, an increasingly crowded primary field, and a narrative that risks spinning out of control, the Spaces fail will only amplify the murmurs that the campaign isn’t ready for prime time.”
Indeed, following at least three server crashes before the Twitter Spaces event began, the governor had to make up ground quickly.
Finally breaking the silence after 26 minutes of delay, the governor’s backers tried to spin the debacle as a sign of overwhelming interest in his candidacy.
“I think we melted the internet there,” said Sacks, the conversation’s moderator.
“You can tell by some of the mistakes that this is real,” Musk said as the event finally got under way.
Earlier that day on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, even voters open to DeSantis’ candidacy were befuddled by his choice of Twitter as his launch venue.
Former New Hampshire Attorney General and Republican National Committee member Thomas Rath told The Daily Beast he had no idea how to tune in—much less what Twitter Spaces even was.
“Announcing with Elon Musk makes no sense,” Rath said at a campaign stop for one of his rivals, Nikki Haley.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you, but maybe it helps him appeal to younger voters,” Republican voter Rick Thomas said at another Haley event later in the day, adding he is open to supporting Trump, DeSantis, or an alternative.
The night before the Twitter Spaces launch, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis shared a short video of DeSantis preparing to go on stage, building anticipation for the big day.
Getting to his material quickly, DeSantis gave a condensed version of his early stump speech in the audio-only affair, quickly going after President Joe Biden as his main target and promising to “re-constitutionalize the United States.”
“We should choose a new direction, a path that will lead to American revitalization,” DeSantis said, adding “merit must trump identity politics.”
The governor’s audio broke up as he tried to weave in aspects of his biography, including his Navy service. He spoke of “reinvigorating integrity in our institutions” and “no social transformation without representation,” while touting his record in Florida, particularly his interventions in education where he claimed the Sunshine State was “ranked number one.”
There were some subtle shots at Trump—though DeSantis did not name him once.
DeSantis said “government isn’t about entertainment,” and referred to himself as “an energetic executive” who would bring generational change to the White House.
In the question-and-answer portion, DeSantis said he chose to kick off his campaign on Twitter because he learned “to go against the grain” during the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not address why the format was helpful for his campaign.
Questioners included high profile right-wing figures close to DeSantis such as Christopher Rufo, the activist who helped popularized the term Critical Race Theory, which began as a legal theory. Rufo gave DeSantis a softball question on education, allowing the governor to call Florida’s well-documented book banning being “a hoax.”
Musk laughed and said he was “under the impression” books have been banned, calling DeSantis’ answer “news to me.”
When Sacks asked DeSantis about immigration, the governor promised to declare the U.S.-Mexico border a national emergency “on day one.” In case that wasn’t clear, DeSantis repeated that immigration would be a “day one issue” for his administration.
Later in the conversation, DeSantis praised Musk’s social media site for scaling back its content moderation tools and lamented journalists for having what he described as sheltered viewpoints.
DeSantis also re-litigated the pandemic on several occasions, referring to years-old travel restrictions and crediting his own early re-opening for preventing “years of rolling lockdowns.”
“I saw an interest in the narrative and an interest in politics over … evidence-based medicine,” DeSantis said, promising to “clean out” federal public health agencies should he make it to the White House.
As the evening wore on, even some of Musk’s biggest fans—the ideal audience for the Twitter Spaces format—began to grow tired.
“I left the Space,” @Catturd2, a fixture of Musk’s platform with 1.7 million followers, tweeted less than an hour into the announcement event. “It was so terrible and boring I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“I’m going to go watch some paint dry so I can be more entertained.”
Minutes after the end of the Spaces chat, Musk tweeted: “All Presidential candidates are most welcome on this platform.” No word yet on who might next be willing to take the risk.
Some Republicans note that expectations are, for better are for worse, primed for DeSantis to improve on Wednesday’s launch.
“As an official candidate, he’ll be covered on what he does and says rather than the vacuum being filled by meta-commentary,” Donovan said. “And with the hype giving way to premature campaign obituaries, the bar is sufficiently low that competence and consistency are enough for a second look.”
“The only thing the political media loves more than a pre-mortem is a good comeback story,” he continued. “DeSantis—and anyone who wants to have a shot avoiding a third Trump nomination—has to hope that starts today.”