7 min read

“Failure to launch”

Ron DeSantis’ presidential announcement revealed a campaign that is shockingly Online — not just because of where he launched it.
“Failure to launch”

Good morning! It’s Thursday, May 25, 2023. The 2024 elections are 530 days away.

If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

DeSantis stumbles in presidential announcement — on flash and substance

After months of anticipation, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched his presidential campaign on Wednesday in a Twitter audio conversation with billionaires Elon Musk, the tech platform’s owner, and David Sacks.

It didn’t go well.

The Twitter Spaces conversation was supposed to kick off at 6 p.m. — but a painful 20 minutes passed before the event got underway, as Twitter repeatedly crashed and the audio kept cutting out.

“That’s unfortunate,” Musk could be heard saying at one point, as his own site continued to glitch. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Eventually, the trio was forced to end the original livestream and start a new one. The nearly 700,000 viewers who had tuned in to hear DeSantis’ announcement — “probably the biggest room that has ever been assembled online,” Sacks falsely bragged — shrunk to an audience of around 300,000.

“Man, I think we melted the internet,” Sacks said.

Meanwhile, in tweets of their own, DeSantis’ rivals from across the political spectrum delighted in his streaming troubles. “DeSaster,” Donald Trump, Jr. quickly labeled the event. President Biden tweeted a link to his campaign fundraising page: “This link works,” he wrote.

By the time DeSantis finally said the magic words “Well, I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback” — he had launched into a minutes-long prepared announcement speech, minus the breaks for applause or ability to see the candidate that normally accompanies such events. (Musk’s promise that the livestream would be devoid of “canned speeches and teleprompters” quickly went out the window).

“DeSantis was able to combine all the cliches of a conventional campaign speech with the visual appeal of a conference call,” Vox’s Ben Jacobs wrote. “It attracted a cumulative audience that was smaller than he would have gotten on any single cable network, let alone a rollout that would have been covered live by all three and potential network television stations.”

Instead of a sit-down interview watched by millions, or an elaborately produced launch rally, the DeSantis-for-president campaign began as a talking Twitter profile picture, with audio that only sometimes worked.

And that was all embarrassing, and awkward, and avoidable, and it has dominated coverage of DeSantis’ announcement so far. But it actually isn’t the part of the Floridian’s kickoff that I think will be most damaging to his presidential hopes in the long-run.

Take a look at some of the issues that dominated DeSantis’ conversation with Sacks, Musk, and a rotating crew of right-wing Twitter firebrands:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which DeSantis called “just crazy.” According to Pew Research Center: 56% of American workers support DEI programs, 16% oppose them. 28% have no opinion.
  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing, which DeSantis described as an effort to “change society” and “change the scope of people’s rights.” According to Gallup: 22% of Americans support using ESG factors in investing, 19% are opposed. 59% are not familiar enough to have an opinion.
  • Cryptocurrencies, which DeSantis assured Americans that “you have every right” to use, while decrying the possibility of a central bank digital currency (CBDC). According to CNBC: 8% of Americans have a positive view of cryptocurrencies, 43% have a negative view. 18% are neutral. (The idea of a CBDC is a niche enough issue that I was unable even to find a poll testing opinions on it.)

More often than not, these acronyms were thrown around without anyone spelling out what they meant, a murky alphabet soup of right-wing pet causes.

DeSantis’ launch did reveal a campaign that is shockingly online — but not because of how he launched it, because of the niche issues he devoted time to.

“Look, I’m a blue-collar kid,” DeSantis said at one point. “I grew up in the Tampa Bay area, working minimum wage to get through school. My grandfather worked in the steel mill in western Pennsylvania. I just know instinctively what normal people think about all this stuff. I have a good sense of when the legacy media and the left are outside of where the average American is.”

But poll after poll show that DeSantis’ views on these issues run counter to the average American’s — or, more often, that they are simply not issues most people care about, save a small crew of anti-woke tech entrepreneurs who live on Twitter, Sacks and Musk included.

There are some issues DeSantis talked about which generate more popular support, such as bashing the mainstream media and condemning Covid-era restrictions. But it is unlikely these are the issues that the 2024 campaign — four years after the pandemic, and decades into the public’s sliding distrust of the media — will be fought over either.

Trump was quick to criticize DeSantis’ launch, but this is precisely the same trap he fell into in 2020. While Trump’s 2016 campaign — unfocused and divisive as it was — was animated by real themes that struck a chord with American voters, his losing bid in 2020 was largely spent discussing a sprawling cinematic universe of his own grievances and targets.

Neither the former president nor his Tallahassee protégé seem to have learned the lessons of that defeat, or of the 2022 midterms, when the GOP’s campaign against wokeness yielded disappointing-at-best results.

After all, while DeSantis was railing against ESG and DEI on Twitter Spaces, Trump was glued to his own online platform, spitting out posts similarly unlikely to resonate with the electorate. In one bizzare Truth Social missive, he referred to DeSantis as “Rob,” bragged about the size of his “Red Button,” and boasted about his friendship with Kim Jong Un.

In another, Trump shared a doctored video mocking his rival’s launch, in which the listeners to DeSantis’ Twitter conversation included George Soros, Adolf Hitler, and the Devil.

Buckle up, America. If Day One were any indication, the Republican Party is about to begin the Most Online presidential primary in history.

Ask Gabe: What happens to unused campaign donations?

Dane T. asks: “What happens to that money if a candidate runs for office and loses and then never runs again? Where does that war chest money go? How is it accounted for? Do the candidates keep it, or is it moved into a larger pool for their party to support other candidates? What are the rules on how that money can be spent after the fact?”
Debbie M. asks: “When a person runs for President, are they allowed to keep any of the fundraising dollars if they are not spent on campaign needs?”

Yes, after an election ends, a candidate can keep their unused funds in their campaign account. The ex-candidate must still report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) every quarter on how much money is left and how it’s being spent — but the funds are still theirs to use, with certain limits.

The money can be spread around to a politician’s allies and favored causes, through donations to other campaigns, party committees, and charities. It can’t go towards personal use.

If the candidate runs in another federal election, the money can roll over to their new campaign. This is how, for example, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) began his presidential bid this week with a record $22 million on hand: it was all left over from his 2022 Senate campaign.

Note that I said “federal election”: according to the FEC, candidates can’t donate unused funds from state-level races to their future campaigns for Congress or the presidency. But the FEC is famously toothless: the commission is split between three Democrats and three Republicans, which means it almost always deadlocks on key decisions and is unable to enforce its own rules.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) recently found a loophole in the regulations, sending unused money from his state campaign account to a federal super PAC backing his congressional bid. The FEC’s general counsel protested that the move was still a violation of federal law, but the panel deadlocked 3-3 and dismissed the matter, meaning Donalds will face no consequences. With that precedent now set, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is expected to roll over $86 million from his gubernatorial account to a super PAC supporting his White House run.

And that’s not the only loophole! Technically, even though funds in campaign committee accounts can’t go towards personal use, funds in “leadership PAC” accounts can. Which is why, earlier this year, former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) simply transferred the funds in his campaign account to a “leadership PAC,” and then used the money to pay his rent. The FEC declined to stand in his way.

These “zombie accounts” can contain a lot of money. When the last Congress ended, retiring and defeated members left with a combined $54 million lingering in their campaign bank accounts. Oftentimes, this money will sit dormant for years — in some cases, long after the politician in question has died.

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed a bill in 2021 that would have required politicians to close their campaign accounts six months after an election if they aren’t filing for the next cycle. The bill never passed; no limit currently exists for how long an old campaign account can remain open.

In other news

“Fitch warns of possible credit downgrade with debt limit deadlock” Politico

“Jan. 6 rioter who put his feet on desk in Pelosi office sentenced to 4.5 years in prison” NBC

“IRS whistleblower speaks: DOJ ‘slow-walked’ tax probe said to involve Hunter Biden” CBS

“Ukrainians Were Likely Behind Kremlin Drone Attack, U.S. Officials Say” NYT

Today in government

White House: President Biden will announce his plans to nominate Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Congress: The House will vote on the HALT Fentanyl Act, which would classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, the most serious classification under the Controlled Substances Act.

Courts: The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference and release opinions.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe