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If Ron DeSantis had the chance to do it all over again, would he skip announcing his presidential bid on Twitter and instead opt for a more tangible and glitch-free “escalator-type” moment? The answer to that question should probably be “yes.” However, is DeSantis too fixated on social media and unable to see the bigger picture?
There the interesting and intriguing new theory making the rounds as we gear up for the 2024 GOP nomination battle.
There will be plenty of time to dissect DeSantis’ record and policy aims. What’s most interesting, right now, is the decision to hold the long-awaited launch of his presidential campaign in such an unorthodox setting. Asked by Musk, after the technical glitches abated, why he would want to “take the chance” of holding the announcement via Twitter, DeSantis pivoted awkwardly to talk about COVID-19 again: “Do you go with the crowd,” he said, or “cut against the grain?”
Upending the tired norms of campaigning is a fine goal, but there seems to be more than that happening here. Announcing a bid for the White House on Twitter, alongside Musk—who has become a cult hero to a certain type of conservative who spends too much time worrying about trolling the political left—is a deliberate choice, and one that tells you something about how DeSantis is framing his candidacy.
Because it’s not as if there weren’t other options available to him—options that might have provided a sunnier, more optimistic setting for an “American comeback” message than what effectively amounted to a conference call on a social media platform that most Americans don’t use.
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Twitter and social media in general has something of a bubble for political junkies, where influencers may rack massive amounts of “likes” and “views” that don’t add up to much real world support. The danger is that in chasing the approval of “very online” influencers, a politician can lose sight of the bigger picture of appealing to a broader spectrum of people who are actual voters. This is the trap that failed Democrat campaigns like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg fell into in 2020. Candidates like Marco Rubio fell into it back in 2016. Turns out the masses weren’t paying all that much attention to what was popular on Twitter, or what was capturing the hearts of niche YouTubers and political bloggers.
As a matter of fact, Elizabeth Warren was easily the most popular Democrat among Twitter wonks and other assorted Beltway influencers back in 2020, and she got curb stomped in the primaries by Joe Biden, who nobody on Twitter seemed to like.
While it’s true that Trump was yuge on Twitter and used the platform to his advantage in 2016, Trump’s appeal was far broader than just Twitter and built on the solid foundation of his real estate empire and massive “The Apprentice” celebrity, combined with his ability to dominate news coverage with rallies and interviews in addition to tweets.
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But it’s conservatives on Twitter who DeSantis views as his national base, as he sets to the task of expanding his brand beyond Florida. As governor, DeSantis has cultivated support among what we might call the “Too Online” faction of conservative politics by engaging in a number of high-profile stunts seemingly designed to appeal to exactly that crowd. Whether feuding with Disney, banning critical race theory in schools, or cruelly shipping undocumented migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis has mastered the use of state power to raise his profile within the subset of Americans who get their jollies by liking and retweeting content that “owns the libs.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t work, of course. Former President Donald Trump wielded Twitter as a powerful tool during his rise to stardom (and the presidency) within Republican politics. DeSantis probably isn’t wrong to sense that cultivating support on Twitter matters—not least because the platform provides a conduit to speak directly to the fans, without having to use the traditional media. Other prominent conservatives have too.
Twitter isn’t the “real world.” It’s where political enthusiasts gather to debate everything under the sun, from two scoops of ice cream to global conflicts. The average person isn’t all that interested in being a political junkie, so DeSantis’ online influencer supporters might not have the impact he expects.
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The downside, as anyone who has used Twitter can tell you, is that it’s not a particularly serious place. If DeSantis’ pitch is that he can be a more competent version of Trump, then Wednesday’s rollout was a failure and not just because of the technical issues. Playing to the Twitter crowd is not a way to demonstrate leadership. If anything, it shows the opposite: that DeSantis is willing to let the online culture wars and political trolling guide his campaign, as it has guided his time as governor.
Throw Trump into the mix, and that’s a recipe for a Republican presidential primary that seems unlikely to move the country closer to solving the big issues. A fight over who is more well-liked among the Too Online Republicans is going to be ugly and dumb.
It’s an interesting theory to speculate that DeSantis might be “too online” for his own good. Trying to replicate what Trump achieved in American politics is a challenging task. Trump is a larger-than-life figure who has been deeply ingrained in pop culture and U.S. history for decades. His social media usage was always distinct and provocative, but only one tool in the toolbox. But we’ll see how this all plays out. After all, stranger things have happened.
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