May 26, 2023
It was the announcement not heard around the world. Ron DeSantis plotted to open his presidential campaign early on Wednesday evening, May 24, with a pioneering social media gambit—introducing himself during an audio-only Twitter forum with Elon Musk. His 2024 effort began instead with a moment of silence. Then several more, reports The New York Times correspondent Matt Flegenheimer.
A voice cut in, then two—Musk’s?—only to disappear again. “Now it’s quiet,” someone whispered. This was true.
“We got so many people here that we are kind of melting the servers,” said David Sacks, the nominal moderator, “which is a good sign.” This was not true.
Soon, all signs were bad. Hold music played for a spell. Some users were summarily booted from the platform, where hundreds of thousands of accounts had gathered to listen.
“The servers are straining somewhat,” Musk said at one point—perhaps unaware that his mic was hot, at least briefly.
For 25 minutes, the only person unmistakably not talking (at least on a microphone) was DeSantis.
The Florida governor’s chosen rollout venue was always going to be a risk, an aural gamble on Musk, a famously capricious and oxygen-stealing co-star, as well as the persuasive powers of DeSantis’s own disembodied voice. (“Whiny,” Donald Trump has called him.)
But the higher-order downsides proved more relevant. Twitter’s streaming tool, known as Spaces, has been historically glitchy. Executive competence, core to the DeSantis campaign message, was conspicuously absent. And for a politician credibly accused through the years of being incorrigibly online—a former DeSantis aide said he regularly read his Twitter mentions—”the event amounted to hard confirmation, a zeitgeisty exercise devolving instead into a conference call from hell,” Flegemheimer wrote.
“You can tell from some of the mistakes that it’s real,” Musk said.
At 6:26 p.m., DeSantis finally announced himself—long after his campaign had announced his intentions, reading from a script that often parroted an introduction video and an email sent to reporters more than 20 minutes earlier.
“Well,” he opened, “I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback.”
After ticking through a curated biography that noted his military background and his “energetic” bearing, DeSantis stayed onine. Sacks, a tech entrepreneur who is close with Musk, acknowledged the earlier mess.
“Thank you for putting up with these technical issues,” he said. “What made you want to kind of take the chance of doing it this way?”
DeSantis swerved instantly to his Covid-era stewardship of Florida.
“Do you go with the crowd?” he asked, recalling his expert-flouting decision-making, “or do you look at the data yourself and cut against the grain?”
Rivals agreed: If he hoped to differentiate himself, Mr. DeSantis had succeeded, in his way.
“‘Rob,’ Trump posted on Truth Social, a standard troll-by-misspelling, winding to a confusing (if potentially juvenile) punchline: “My Red Button is bigger, better, stronger, and is working.”
Even Fox News piled on.
“Want to actually see and hear Ron DeSantis?” read a pop-up banner on its website. “Tune into Fox News at 8 p.m. (ET)” (Urging donations once he got on the air, DeSantis wondered if supporters might “break that part of the internet as well.”)
Minor as a tech snag might prove in the long run, it was a dispiriting turn for DeSantis after months of meticulous political choreography.
So much of his strength as a contender over the past year was theoretical, said Flegenheimer: the mystery-box candidate constructing a national profile on his terms: slayer of liberals, smasher of foes, the Trumpy non-Trump.
He would conquer and coast. He would Make America Florida. He would be a sight to behold. Presumably.
The reality of DeSantis’s pre-candidacy has been less imposing, shadowed by uneasy public appearances, skittish donors, and a large polling gap between him and Trump.
With better tech, perhaps, a visual-free campaign debut might have been a clever way to rediscover that past aura, to let listeners fill in the mystery box as they choose, before Trump tries to chuck it offstage.
Or maybe the governor’s ostensible advantages—looking the part, before the full audition—were always doomed to translate poorly on Wednesday, when there was nothing to see. It is difficult to project indomitable swagger and take-on-all-comer-ism at an invisible gathering devoid of non-friendly questioning or workaday voters.
Research contact: @nytimes