Thoughts on Ron DeSantis’s glitch-ridden campaign launch

When I first learned that Florida governor Ron DeSantis was going to launch his presidential campaign on a Twitter Spaces event with Elon Musk, I was skeptical. It was an unconventional move, an effort to break with the standard of releasing an online video commercial and following it up with a large rally the next day, before heading on a tour of early primary states. 

So I decided to withhold comment until after seeing how it went. 

Now that the event has ended, it has only served to reinforce why most presidential candidates go with the predictable, tried, and tested route. In short, it was a disaster.

The launch of a campaign is one of the few moments in which a candidate has full control of the medium and message, and broad attention. By agreeing to do the Twitter Spaces launch, DeSantis surrendered control and suffered for it. First, there were the embarrassing technical issues, which caused the audio to cut off several times before things finally kicked off more than 20 minutes after they were supposed to. When the first talking space was shut down, over 600,000 people were listening. But the audience peaked just above 300,000 when it came back. 

In theory, one advantage of an unconventional announcement in a Twitter Spaces conversation is its informality — it’s more like a live, interactive podcast. Because one of the knocks on DeSantis is that he’s too rehearsed and calculating, it could have offered DeSantis the opportunity to show his lighter side and in an unscripted environment — to joke and banter with the other participants. Instead, when called on at first, he launched into a standard stump speech. This had me thinking, if he was just going to give a stump speech, what is the point of doing a Twitter Spaces? How is it better to deliver that announcement via audio to silence as opposed to doing so in front of a massive crowd of thousands of supporters against a great backdrop in Florida? Put another way, the event had all of the disadvantages of an informal forum with none of the advantages.

Once it got going, the conversation diverged in many directions that weren’t all about DeSantis and why he should be president, much of which served Musk’s interest in promoting Twitter. It also veered into topics that would be obscure to most voters. For instance, it was likely the first presidential launch that included a discussion of Chevron deference. 

Don’t get me wrong; the format is a somewhat interesting way to take a deeper dive into topics. And on the substance, DeSantis obviously had command of what he was saying, and he has a good story to tell. But to the extent that there was any benefit to this, DeSantis could have done it in Week Two of his campaign, or maybe Day Two. But a candidate has only one chance at his announcement. DeSantis enters this race well behind Donald Trump and faces questions about whether he will be able to scale up from being a successful governor to becoming a winning presidential candidate. He doesn’t have much margin for error — and his first action as a candidate was a huge mistake.

Twitter’s tech misfire undermines DeSantis’s central case

The keystone of DeSantis’s launch was intended to be the Twitter Spaces event.

Praised beforehand as innovative, it turned out to be disastrous.

It was beset with technical difficulties from the start. Many users reported being unable to log onto the event, and those who did had to struggle with audio that was interrupted, garbled, or dropped out entirely.

For those who were able to listen live, the event turned into a cringe-fest.

At one point, a voice that appeared to be that of moderator David Sacks plaintively claimed: “We are kind of melting the servers, which is a good sign.”

As the minutes ticked by, Musk’s voice materialized to declare it “an incredible honor” for DeSantis to make his “historic announcement” on Twitter — after which the audio immediately crashed again.

On one hand, even an embarrassment on the scale that DeSantis suffered on Wednesday night isn’t politically fatal.

But it’s worth remembering that the governor’s central case is that he is a more competent and effective rival to the purportedly more chaotic Trump.

The Wednesday night debacle administer a deep, self-inflicted wound to that case.

“Ron’s Desaster” was the online headline on the Daily Mail’s website. “Don’t say glitch — DeSantis Jumpy Start,” blared the Drudge Report. Conservative news site Breitbart proclaimed, “Twitter launch DeBacle for DeSantis.”

Trump and Biden united for once — in gloating

DeSantis’s epic misfire achieved one unusual feat — putting President Biden and former President Trump on the same page.

Neither Team Biden nor Team Trump was going to let pass such a golden opportunity to capitalize on DeSantis’s misfortune.

Biden, characteristically, opted for a milder approach.

His official Twitter account posted a link where supporters could give to his reelection campaign, drily adding, “This link works.”

Trump, who had been sniping at DeSantis in the hours before the Florida governor’s launch, wrote on TruthSocial: “‘Rob,’ My Red Button is bigger, better, stronger, and is working (TRUTH!), yours does not! (per my conversation with Kim Jung Un, of North Korea, soon to become my friend!)..”

A short time later, Trump followed up with: 

“Wow! The DeSanctus TWITTER launch is a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!”

Such rhetoric is par for the course for Trump. But it must be galling for the DeSantis campaign to have given the former president such powerful ammunition.

A great night for the other “not-Trump” candidates

Republican candidates who hope to position themselves as alternatives to Trump were the other big winners on Wednesday. That’s true of declared candidates but also of those who are weighing whether to enter the race. 

For months, those other “not-Trump” names have had to watch polls that showed DeSantis the former president’s most serious potential challenger — usually by some distance.

The messiness of DeSantis’s campaign launch cracks the door wider open for others.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had released an ad on Wednesday morning attacking DeSantis as a pale copy of Trump and arguing that voters deserved “a choice, not an echo.” 

Amid DeSantis’s Twitter meltdown, Haley’s press secretary tweeted a reminder of her smooth mid-February campaign launch and expressed pride about the vigor with which she had “jumped into the arena.”

One Tim Scott aide mockingly suggested he was going to make a “very special announcement…on AIM.”

Even former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a mild-mannered, long-shot candidate got in on the act, tweeting a fundraising link and saying, “Just like my policies, this link works.”

But there is also one more intriguing beneficiary: Youngkin.

The Virginia governor had appeared to rule out a 2024 bid a few weeks ago. But that seems to have shifted somewhat. There is chatter about GOP donors being newly interested in Youngkin as DeSantis has faltered. Youngkin released an ad just last week that was notably presidential in tenor. 

Wednesday night’s DeSantis flop will surely increase the clamor for Youngkin among some conservatives.

DeSantis tries to repair the damage on Fox News

DeSantis at least had a prompt opportunity to repair some of the damage from Twitter. Within an hour, he was on Fox News for a long, primetime interview with Trey Gowdy, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina.

On Fox. DeSantis hit all the notes expected, with no technical troubles. 

He talked about his own landslide win in his reelection fight last November, insisting that he had “unprecedented policy success,” and attacking Biden as a “listless vessel.” 

He hit out at another favorite target too: “The ‘woke’ mind virus.”

The polished DeSantis performance on Fox might win back some lost ground. After all, though TV ratings are not instantly available, the same hour on Fox News the previous night had more than 1.4 million viewers — a far bigger audience than the audio-only Twitter Spaces event with Musk on Wednesday.

But even on Fox, DeSantis has to glancingly acknowledge the embarrassment of what had occurred earlier.

As he appealed for donations through his website, he added, “Maybe we can break that part of the internet as well.”

DeSantis bad stumble comes at the start of a marathon

Bad as Wednesday was for DeSantis, it’s important to keep some perspective.

A moment as dramatic as the Twitter Spaces misfire seems far bigger now than it will even next month.

The first GOP debate is not scheduled until August. The date of the Iowa GOP caucuses has not even been set yet.

Everything can change between now and early next year. Other candidates may rise and fall. DeSantis will have better moments. Trump’s legal troubles aren’t going away.

DeSantis stumbled badly on Wednesday — but he did so at the starting line of a marathon.