In the end, every political campaign is a lesson in revisionism. Those that win are assumed to have been touched by genius, masterminded by a rare masterclass of orchestration. Policy and communications singing in Beach Boys harmony. Lead candidates and their deputies a Torvill and Dean of choreographed symbiosis. A happy, scrappy team working against the odds to achieve the remarkable. The Cool Runnings of campaigns.
This is, fairly obviously, untrue.
Most winning campaigns are no such thing. Votes cast are not in response to the campaign, but to the conditions. The global context. The incumbent’s track record. The candidate on the other side.
There’s an abundance of examples of this rewriting of history. Truly awful campaigns, whether from the perspective of communications, candidate selection, message discipline or just sheer common-or-garden incompetence, have gone on to win big. Even the best campaigns, those lauded as the high watermark of strategic and operational excellence, are not without their absurd missteps.
For instance, let’s travel back a decade, towards a six-foot, bright yellow, talking, avian, lawsuit. The Obama 2012 campaign, among the most adored in the left-leaning political bubble since Bartlet For President, is presumed to have been just such a masterclass. New technologies. Young, dynamic professionals. Clear communications (Yes We Can!), a dream candidate in his prime. A veritable pre-credits montage of West Wing glory. Surely there was no massive, obvious, hilarious shitting of the campaign bed?
Step up Big Bird. Nope, not a clever Secret Service codename. That Big Bird.
Mitt Romney (speaking of revisionist history) had made a minor, fairly popular, largely unnoticed comment in a debate, promising to examine public spending on broadcasters, particularly PBS (the publicly funded home of kids’ TV show Sesame Street), signalling his openness to cut that spending. A few years on from the financial crisis, such willingness to be forensic with every line item of government spending, even the cuddliest, was hardly controversial. It polled well.
But the Obama camp saw a chance. They hit back, neck-snappingly quick, with a TV ad and a huge national media buy. This was in response, remember, to a minor debate comment about PBS spending. Truly, they brought a thermonuclear weapon to a thumb war.
Well, Big Bird did not fly. Firstly, the ad alerted America to Romney’s preference for fiscal prudence. It pointed the attention of an electorate towards the policy, and lo, voters broadly supported what they found. In an America scarred by the collapses of 2008, it trivialised the very idea of financial conservatism, using a children’s character (“big, yellow, a menace to our economy” chimes the faux-disaster warning), and fuelling the Romney narrative that Obama was out of touch.
The lesson, then, is that even good, winning campaigns are not all good. Even smart people are not always smart. No political campaign was ever entirely good, just as, presumably, no campaign was ever entirely awful.
Until Ron DeSantis for President.
Genuinely, it’s hard to know where to begin. A senior campaign staffer is quoted by NBC describing the campaign with a clarity of message and snappy turn of phrase that were both sorely lacking from the candidate. “Just an absolute shit show”, he says. Well, how absolute a shit show are we talking about here?
It’s a firework display of FUBARs. From all angles, at all moments, wherever you look at the thing it’s horrendous. From the first moment to the final capitulation, DeSantis for President presents a greatest hits album of gross incompetence. All killer, no filler. Let’s sift through the wreckage and pick out five particularly inglorious fragments.
DeSantis picked for his launch platform the nascent ‘Spaces’, a shiny new part of the unfolding Twitter Muskmare that is in essence a big, online conference call that any member of Twitter (don’t even with X) can join and listen in. ‘Spaces’ begs a lot of questions, chiefly “isn’t that just the radio?”, but big tech has a magnetism to US politicians keen to project modernity. Indeed, there is a strategic logic visible in the background here, an attempt to co-opt the platform most associated with the leading candidate, based in the state of another frontrunner. So, there they were, Elon and Ron, the CEO and the Candidate, very literally just calling it in.
Then, you may recall, the wheels fell off. Things were looking good. Listeners were joining. Musk claimed they were doing so at the rate of 50,000 per minute. Super! Until, all of a sudden, it was not super at all. With the feed above 600,000 potential voters, all giving DeSantis this one chance to make a first impression, granting him their most precious investment, their time… well, at that most crucial moment, it all went wrong. Users were kicked off or asked to reboot in their hundreds of thousands, and unable to return. Those who could remain had garbled audio, painful feedback loops. Nothing worked. “We are kind of melting the servers!” Musk beamed, “which is a good sign.” It was not a good sign.
Once the feed was eventually repaired and the conference call could get underway, those 600,000 potential #TeamRon recruits had voted with their tweet, and left. Well, all but 40,000 of them, who were still tuned in. Or perhaps just bots. That is a lot of disappointed people whose first impression of the DeSantis campaign was, accurately as it would transpire, very far from positive.
Literally Crap Debate Props
An apology. I’d underestimated the on-the-nose specificity of the ‘shit show’ label. I mistakenly thought it was just a neat metaphor from a frustrated advisor. I didn’t believe that DeSantis would literally point to human shit at a pivotal moment in pursuit of the nomination to be president of the United States. No such luck. In a debate at the end of November, when California governor Gavin Newsom stood in opposition to Ron’s juggernaut of blunders, DeSantis had up his sleeve what he thought was a silver bullet. A prop that would be remembered.
Well, he was right in that respect. Proudly, he unfurled his ‘poop map’ of San Francisco. It was designed to highlight the scale and burden of homelessness and it was, let me repeat, a poop map. Generated by an app, it showed precisely where human shit had been found on the streets. Ironically, it was a good example of Silicon Valley ingenuity, for which Newsom credits himself. “You may be wondering…” Ron began, holding up the map of San Francisco’s iconic grid (incidents marked, fittingly, in brown) “what is that plotting?” Nobody was, and yet he answered. “Human faeces.” Silence in the auditorium. A shit show, indeed.
Head-spinning Messaging Strategy
Chaos. Pure, Joker-in-Batman, burn-it-all-down chaos. The DeSantis campaign (and really, that is a very flattering way to describe it) lurched so often and so fast from one idea to another, from one line to another, from one campaign manager to another, it was like watching a grifter’s game of three card monte just trying to keep up.
He was, first up, Trump without the crazy, the party’s acceptable-faced saviour. Then he was Warring on Woke, attacking dastardly liberals at Disney and Bud Light. Then he was Wall Street’s special son, cutting regulatory red tape with the joy of a free-market Sewing Bee contestant. Next, the righteous Right to Lifer, dressed in preacher cosplay. Lastly, landing on a ‘Let Ron be Ron’ strategy only by virtue of having dressed DeSantis up in every consume in the party-store discount bin marked ‘Republicans’, we hit the glorious nadir:
“Uniforms don’t define a man…” a gravel-voiced Hollywood narrator began, audibly suppressing a laugh, “but they do tell a story”. The uniforms and story the ad intended to highlight were the respective garbs of DeSantis’ all-American heroism. US Navy whites. Yale Baseball blues. The working-class brown of his time as an electrician’s assistant in college.
Dressing up, it turns out, had always been Ron’s substitute for personality. If only he had chosen one thing to pretend to be, and kept it up for long enough for it to become in any way credible, that might have made for a campaign strategy. As it transpired, like one of those Eddie Murphy movies where he plays all the parts, the audience just ended up laughing out loud, but not for the intended reasons.
The numbers, particularly to us on this side of the Atlantic, are simply mind boggling. The headline dollar-per-vote figure is, frankly, horrifying. He spent more than $1,500 – nearly £1,200 – for every vote that was cast for him. Every individual vote.
He could have bought and sent the Iowa caucus voters each a brand new Macbook pre-loaded with his (unfathomably bad) campaign TV ads and still come out with a net saving in the millions. In a profligacy head-to-head for the ages, he spent on his run almost exactly what the UK government have (so far) sunk into sending no asylum seekers to Rwanda. One hundred and fifty million dollars. I’ve written it longhand, like a cheque, because it bears luxuriation in the detail. $150,000,000. Non inclusive, presumably, of his dignity.
Concession That Wasn’t
This ought to have been the easy bit. A sprinkle of human dignity. A nod of humility. It’s not hard. Many truly terrible campaigns have been redeemed slightly by sober, dignified concessions. This one was not.
Like the launch, it began alright. There’s no path yada yada yada. I’ve prayed for guidance blah blah blah. If I could do more I would etc etc etc. Then it all went spectacularly sideways. First, he endorsed (entirely unnecessarily) the man who had mocked him as a “wounded bird, falling from the skies” and relentlessly as “Ron DeSanctimonious.” A man who our Ron had called unfit to lead, a veritable danger to America, who was even due “a reckoning” for American deaths on his watch during Covid, was suddenly unfit no longer.
Next, though, it got really silly. “I’m proud,” he began, somehow actually looking proud, “that I delivered on one hundred percent of my promises,” which included, of course, principally that he would become the next president. Then, most glorious of all, “I will not stop now!” he said, stopping. Now.
It is merciful, then, that the show that never got going will not go on. Perhaps, given the governor’s grotesque stance on abortion, a just fate for his ill-conceived embarrassment of a campaign would have been to force him to carry it to term. Thankfully for the rest of us, he enjoys that which he is so keen to deprive America’s women, the right to choose.
The last word, as it looks like it might do for the whole presidential shebang, goes of course to Donald Trump. “A really terrific person”, was Don’s typically detailed assessment of Ron, the one-time man he’d joyfully bullied and denigrated out of any last shred of human dignity. Had that been DeSantis’ campaign slogan from the beginning, it couldn’t have been much worse.
Ron DeSantis, A Really Terrific Person. Well, there’s always 2028.
Alex Hesz is a writer and strategist. Read more from Alex at alexhesz.substack.com