How Ron DeSantis Lost the Internet

In early May, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared to run for president, about a dozen right-wing social media influencers gathered at his polling place for cocktails and a poolside buffet.

The guests all had large followings or successful podcasts and were already fans of the governor. But DeSantis’ team wanted to turn them into a battalion of messaging surrogates who could engage with Donald Trump and his supporters online.

For some, however, the rally backfired because they didn’t want to damage their relationships with the governor or other Republican leaders, according to three attendees who spoke on condition of anonymity.

DeSantis advisers were defensive when asked about campaign strategy, they said, and struggled to reach points beyond the vague concept of freedom. Some guests at the previously unreported meeting doubted the DeSantis camp knew what it was for.

Four months later, those concerns seem more than justified. According to former staff members, campaign influencers and right-wing commentators, DeSantis’ hyper-online strategy, once seen as a potential strength, quickly became an obvious weakness in the presidential campaign, with a series of gaffes, unforced errors and Exploded opportunities. .

Even after recent concerted efforts to reboot, the campaign has struggled to shake off a reputation for being lean and mean online, repeatedly insulting Trump supporters and alienating potential allies. Some of its most high-profile efforts, including videos using Nazi symbolism and homoerotic imagery, have turned off donors and diverted much-needed attention away from the candidate. And despite positioning itself as a social-media-first campaign, it hasn’t been able to stop the cascade of internet memes denigrating DeSantis.

Those mistakes are hardly the only source of trouble for DeSantis, who is ranked second in the poll. Like the rest of his rivals, the DeSantis campaign has often failed to land meaningful blows against Trump, who somehow only gains support when he’s criticized.

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But as past presidential campaigns like those of Bernie Sanders and Trump have become textbook cases of the power of online buzz, DeSantis’ proposal now highlights a different lesson for future presidential contenders: The failure of a virtual contest can jeopardize a real campaign. .

“The strategy was to be a newer and better version of the culture warrior,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman. But they did so to the exclusion of many traditional advertising messages.

The DeSantis campaign denied it was hurt by its online strategy, but said it would not repeat old stories.

“Our campaign is firing on all cylinders and is focused on what lies ahead: taking it to Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said.

Pudding fingers

The problem started immediately. When DeSantis launched his campaign in a live chat on Twitter, the servers crashed and hundreds of thousands of people logged out of the feed, and he was widely mocked.

When his campaign manager, Jenra Peck, discussed the failure at a meeting the next morning, she claimed that the launch was so It was popular that broke the internet. Discuss internal operations

Each recalled being stunned by this apparent disconnect: Senior staff members seemed convinced that an embarrassing disaster had somehow been a triumph.

Pack had little oversight of the campaigns’ online operations, which were anchored by a team known internally as the war room, according to three former aides. The team consisted of young and energetic staff, many fresh out of college, who spent their days scouring the Internet for compelling storylines, writing posts and dreaming up memes and videos that they hoped would go viral.

At the helm was DeSantis Rapid Response Manager Christina Pushaw. Pushaw has become known for his highly online approach to communications, including a scorched-earth strategy with critics and the press. As press secretary to governors, he often posted screenshots of inquiries from mainstream news outlets on the Web rather than answering them, and once told followers that, to the long-time embarrassment of an Associated Press reporter, he temporarily banned from Twitter.

Long before the presidential bid became official, Pushaw and some other Internet crews, often posting under the handle @DeSantisWarRoom, went after critics and attacked the old media while promoting the governor’s agenda in Florida.

At first, they conspicuously avoided mentioning Trump, and when pro-Trump influencers flooded the Internet in March with posts that rumored that DeSantis had once eaten chocolate pudding with his fingers, they seemed to be on fire.

The governor’s campaign dismissed it as liberal gossip, even as Trump supporters began waving pudding fingers at campaign stops and a pro-Trump political action committee aired a TV ad that featured images of hands holding chocolate pudding. was collecting Seven months later, #fingerpudding is still making the rounds on social media.

Joan Donovan, a researcher at Boston University who studies misinformation and has written a book on the role of memes in politics, said: “This episode seems like little more than childish bullying, but such moments can affect the perception of a candidate.” influence.

Donovan said the best, if not the only, way to deal with this kind of thing is to approach it with humor. This meme is called magic: the irony is that the more you try to destroy it, the more problematic it becomes.

DeSantis campaigns show muted responses it’s open season: Since then, the campaign hasn’t been able to quell memes mocking the governor for wiping his muzzle on voters, laughing hysterically and wearing a lift in his cowboy boots.

Pink lightning bolts

Attempts to be aggressive proved even further than that. In June, War Room began creating very light-hearted videos full of internet jokes and offensive images that appeared to be aimed at a very young and very far-right audience.

One video included fake footage of Trump hugging and kissing Anthony Fauci in response to the former presidents’ response to the pandemic. Many conservatives were offended and called the post dishonest and underhanded.

I was 55/45 for Trump/DeSantis, Tim Poole, whose podcast has 3 million subscribers across multiple YouTube channels, wrote in response to the video. I am now 0% for DeSantis.

Another video blasts Trump as overly supportive of LGBT rights and intersperses images of transgender people, images of DeSantis with pink lightning coming out of his eyes and clips from the movie “American Psycho.”

A video was then released that included a Sonnenrad icon with the Nazis with DeSantis’ face on it.

Although many of the videos were first posted on third-party Twitter accounts, they were made in the war room, according to two former aides, as well as text messages reviewed by The New York Times. Drafts of the videos were shared in a large group chat on the encrypted messaging service Signal, where other employees could provide feedback and ideas about where and when to post them online.

As public outrage over Sonnenrad’s video grew, the anonymous account that posted it, Ron DeSantis Fancams, was deleted. The campaign, which was laying off more than three dozen staffers for financial reasons, took steps to rein in the war room, according to two former aides. And although the video was co-produced, a campaign aide who reposted it was fired.

Online controversy marred the rest of the campaign. In early August, aerospace tycoon Robert Bigelow, by far the largest contributor to Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, said he would stop donating, saying extremism can’t elect you. Many other key DeSantis backers are also out of money, including billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin.

Terry Sullivan, a Republican political consultant who was Sen. Marco Rubios’ 2016 presidential campaign manager, said the bizarre videos were a warning sign to donors that the DeSantis campaign was chaotic, undisciplined and chasing voters. It is marginal.

Most high-dollar donors are business people, Sullivan said. No one wants to buy a burning house.

“objectionable or annoying or both”

Videos have not been the only problem. The campaign has worked to build a network of influencers and surrogates that can inject DeSantis’ message into online conversations and podcasts dominated by Trump supporters.

DeSantis won over many of those votes in his re-election campaign last year. But repeated attempts to recruit other influencers for his presidential campaign, including a poolside dinner in Tallahassee, failed.

Benny Johnson, a former journalist with nearly 2 million followers on X, formerly Twitter, resisted overtures from DeSantis’ team and remains a staunch Trump supporter. Chaya Raichik, whose Libs of TikTok account has 2.6 million followers, was present at the Tallahassee dinner, according to two attendees, but has remained neutral.

Neither Johnson nor Rychick returned requests for comment. Other influencers said they were repulsed by the campaign’s combativeness and youth and were reluctant to let go of Trump, which seemed to be growing by the week.

Mike Davis, a conservative attorney with a large social media following, said the campaign appeared to be reduced to little more than a spat with the Trump camp. He said the campaign approached him about being a surrogate, but he declined and has since been silenced by its aggressive online tactics.

Its tactics, he said, are either counterproductive or offensive, or both.

DeSantis’ existing network of influencers presented challenges for the campaign. Online surrogates for DeSantis have repeatedly parroted, word for word, talking points emailed to them daily by the campaign, undermining the effort to present an image of broad, organic support.

Last month, for example, three different accounts emerged almost simultaneously about Trump being booed at a college football game in Iowa. Bill Mitchell, a DeSantis supporter with a large following at X, said the identical posts were a coincidence.

He said he would talk to all team members as needed, but other than daily emails no specific direction was received.

Ending the meme wars

The campaign recently tried to change course. Under the direction of James Uttmeyer, who replaced Peck as campaign manager in August, the campaign has shifted to a more traditional online strategy.

35-year-old Othmayer said in an interview: I should have been born in another generation. I don’t even really know what meme wars are.

More recently, the campaign has more closely aligned its online messaging with the real-world rhetoric that DeSantis delivers on the pitch. The campaign is putting new oversight on its social media team and is scrutinizing posts on DeSantis’ war room account more closely, according to a person familiar with the campaign. It’s also toned down the often bellicose tone of many of its influencers and staff members, and has scaled back its production of edgy videos, opting for electric eyes for more traditional fare.

For example, a video released this week used clips from television interviews to show that Nikki Haley, who is challenging DeSantis for second place in the Republican polls, has changed course on allowing Palestinian refugees into the United States. Is.

Eric Erickson, an influential conservative radio host, said: “For a while, they seemed to me to be more interested in winning the daily Twitter battle than winning the overall political campaign. But now, he said, it finally looks like DeSantis is running for president of the United States, not Twitter.

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