Twitter owner Elon Musk promoting a Twitter Spaces event with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on May 24, 2023 Credit - Photo illustration by Scott Olson—Getty Images
Ron DeSantis’s campaign for president launched Wednesday night with glitchy mic checks on Twitter, long silent pauses, and space-age electronic music.
For the Florida Governor, whose principle pitch to Republicans is being a more competent implementer of Donald Trump’s right-wing agenda, it was a disastrous opening night.
More than 600,000 Twitter users waited through 15 minutes of glitches to hear the widely promoted conversation featuring DeSantis and Twitter owner Elon Musk. Eventually, DeSantis launched into a pre-written campaign speech in which he accused President Joe Biden of taking his cues from “the woke mob” and said American decline is “not inevitable.”
Then he made his pitch for why voters should back him. He called for “economic sanity” and denounced “inflationary policies that hurt working people” and pledged to “bring the administrative state to heel.” He promised to “shut down the border and construct a border wall.”
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Following that list of boiled-over Trumpisms, DeSantis took a swipe at former President Donald Trump’s leadership of the GOP. “We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years,” DeSantis said. “We must look forward, not backwards.”
Some of DeSantis’ rivals were quick to mock the technical difficulties. Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform, “The DeSanctus TWITTER launch is a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!” Others made veiled swipes. President Joe Biden tweeted “This link works” with a link to a page to donate to his campaign. Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas Governor who recently launched a 2024 campaign, tweeted a similar joke with a donation link.
DeSantis’s decision to launch his campaign on Twitter Spaces was a risk from the start. His campaign was expecting it would be seen as novel, and allow the candidate to associate himself with Musk, who has gained a newfound celebrity on the right since buying Twitter and reopening accounts that had been banned for spreading misinformation. Desantis could have taken a more conventional approach. Trump launched his campaign in November before a friendly crowd in the ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. Biden played it safe and announced his reelection bid in April with a three-minute video posted online.
Once the glitches subsided, and DeSantis finished his stump speech, Musk said, “Thank you for putting up with technical issues, we are definitely breaking new ground.” Later Musk, who has 140 million Twitter followers, said that the platform crashed because of “scaling issues” and the sheer number of people trying to listen.
In an hour-long conversation moderated by Musk and David Sacks, a tech entrepreneur and major GOP donor, DeSantis defended his work blocking teachings about gender identities and America’s racial inequality from Florida’s education system, and his efforts to punish companies working in Florida like Disney for incorporating what he described as “woke” ideologies. As DeSantis spoke, the number of users listening in dropped to around 300,000. The DeSantis campaign claimed Wednesday evening it had raised over $1 million online in an hour.
If he wants to take on Trump for the Republican nomination, DeSantis has a lot of ground to make up. The most recent, unreleased Ipsos polling shows DeSantis with the support of about 19% of registered Republicans, and Trump with over 40%, Clifford Young, president of U.S. public affairs at Ipsos, tells TIME. DeSantis’s support within the GOP is down from about 30% of registered Republicans four months ago, Young says.
On abortion, DeSantis moved firmly to the right of Trump on abortion when he signed into Florida law a ban on abortions after six-weeks. Trump has criticized the law, suggesting it’s too harsh. Young says that the law likely hurt DeSantis’s approval ratings. When DeSantis isn’t focusing on the economy and immigration, his message is out of sync with what is top of mind for registered Republicans, Young says.
“He’s losing across the board,” Young says. “He’s losing especially with Republican women.”
In recent months, as DeSantis made it clear he intended to run for President, Trump stepped up his attacks, which also seems to have turned many Republicans against him. “As he’s put his head out, Trump’s has basically stepped up, and so anytime Trump does that, he tends to dominate the mind space,” says Young.
Many of DeSantis’s other policies are aligned with Trump’s, making it harder for him to differentiate himself from the frontrunner. “He’s running to be the heir of the Trump movement and Trump is still running. It’s kind of hard to claim the throne when there’s a guy still in it,” says a former Trump speech writer. “That’s the fundamental problem he can’t get around.”
During the discussion on Twitter, the entrepreneur Sacks brought up the recent illustration on TIME’s cover of DeSantis looking thuggish and peeling an orange. “I thought it was kind of cool,” Sacks said. “I think we need a cool headed assassin to go in, take on the woke mob, take on the government.”
DeSantis leaned into that characterization, saying, “at the end of the day this whole business we are in is about producing results.”
Wrapping up the conversation, DeSantis praised Musk for allowing people who had been blocked back on Twitter to return to the platform. As for the livestream, the Florida Governor said he’d like to “do it again,” saying Twitter is “a great platform” and “a healthy democratic society needs a robust debate.”
Trump’s Twitter account was suspended in the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, with the company citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Musk reactivated the account and invited Trump back on the platform, but Trump’s said he’ll continue using his own social media website for now. Nonetheless, Sacks, the entrepreneur and moderator, seemed to be talking directly to Trump when he said, at the end of DeSantis’ conversation, “The invitation is open to any other candidates that might want to do this.”