vivek ramaswamy is running out of time scaled

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy attacks former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley during the fourth Republican presidential primary debate in December. She has still risen in the polls.
JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had a rough holiday season.

Around Christmas, Ramaswamy stopped advertising on television.

The famously (or maybe infamously) aggressive debate-stage gladiator will not qualify for the final televised debate before the Iowa caucuses.

And in line with Ramaswamy’s late-in-the-game embrace of right-wing conspiracy theories, his campaign’s idea of a last-minute coup is landing the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a far-right lawmaker whose history of racist remarks led to his defeat in a Republican primary in 2020.

“He’s a very intelligent podcaster,” said Will Ritter, a Republican television ad maker, referencing Ramaswamy’s prolific podcasting as a candidate. “He should stick to podcasting.”

David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist who advised Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, put it slightly differently. “He’s the Ted Talk candidate,” he said.

For a brief moment over the summer, Ramaswamy’s outsider background, intelligence, and Donald Trump-like penchant for provocation had him nipping at the heels of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. His dominant performance in the inaugural debate prompted national interest in his candidacy from conservative voters ― because of, rather than in spite of, the revulsion he inspired among liberals.

But a host of factors have converged to reduce Ramaswamy’s chances of success to somewhere in the “slim-to-none” range. He is now in fourth place in polls of the Iowa caucuses with an average of 6% support. In New Hampshire, which Ramaswamy’s campaign expected to be more favorable for his bid, the candidate is polling slightly lower on average.

Ramaswamy’s campaign maintains that the polls fail to capture the depth of the entrepreneur’s support since so much of the excitement he generates is among first-time caucus-goers not targeted by public surveys.

“Vivek is attracting new voters to the party who resonate with his message — from libertarians to independents to young people who are excited to vote in their first election for him, he is creating a broad coalition that will shock the system,” said Zachery Henry, a Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson.

Henry also rejected the idea that the campaign’s drawdown on television, where it had spent $4.7 million to date, was tantamount to throwing in the towel. He claimed that the campaign has increased its paid communication spending outside of TV, which it sees as a more efficient use of cash.

“We are focused on bringing out the voters we’ve identified,” Henry said. “And the best way to reach them is using addressable advertising, mail, text, live calls, and knock on doors to communicate with our voters on Vivek’s vision for America, making sure they have a plan to caucus, and then turning them out.”

The campaign does not rule out returning to the television airwaves in the final week before the Jan. 15 caucus.

A new infusion of cash will make that possible. Ramaswamy has spent $26 million of his own money on his candidacy, according to the campaign. Axios reported that he has since sold $33 million in stock to invest significant new sums into the campaign.

“From libertarians to independents to young people who are excited to vote in their first election for him, he is creating a broad coalition that will shock the system.”

– Zachery Henry, spokesperson, Ramaswamy campaign

But it’s unlikely that new money can succeed where the old money fell short. And while every outsider candidate promises to win by reshaping the electorate, few have pulled it off ― not least someone with a polling deficit as large as Ramaswamy’s.

What is instead more plausible is that Ramaswamy could not convert the initial novelty of his bid into sustained support. Ramaswamy’s approach has been inconsistent, relying on a flood-the-zone strategy with media appearances and debate performances, which ultimately failed to make a compelling enough case for his candidacy. After a pugilistic opening round on the debate stage, Ramaswamy pivoted to the role of peacemaker in the second debate, calling on his fellow candidates to be more respectful to one another. The shift in tone raised questions about his authenticity.

“The fact that he was two completely different people between the first debate and the second debate gave people the impression that he’s a performer,” Kochel said. “I think he just comes across as a phony.”

In his third and fourth debate performances, Ramaswamy was a prizefighter once more, but often in ways that seemed counterproductive. Time and again, he aired his contempt for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley with gleeful put-downs that failed to stall her rise in the polls. In November, when Ramaswamy accused Haley of hypocrisy for allowing her daughter to use TikTok while she called for banning it, Haley shot back, “You’re just scum.”

Ritter likened Ramaswamy’s short-lived popularity to other fad candidacies, like businessman Herman Cain’s in 2012.

“People who might be a little bored of the primary gave him a chance,” Ritter said. “But he continued to embarrass himself by being zany in the debates.”

Now Ramaswamy appears to be closing his campaign by embracing the right wing’s more outlandish conspiracy theories. In the most recent Republican debate in December, Ramaswamy declared himself the sole candidate willing to argue that the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, “does now look like an inside job.”

He has accompanied his appeals to right-wing paranoia with tirades against the media and the “establishment” that have met with applause from audiences of likely Iowa caucus-goers, who continue to turn out for his events across the state.

But Ramaswamy’s appeal with a segment of the GOP grassroots has failed to generate an uptick in the polls.

Former President Donald Trump, seen here campaigning in Waterloo, Iowa, has dominated the Republican primary's populist lane, limiting Ramaswamy's potential for growth.

Former President Donald Trump, seen here campaigning in Waterloo, Iowa, has dominated the Republican primary’s populist lane, limiting Ramaswamy’s potential for growth.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

That disparity underscores the main obstacle for Ramaswamy: Trump, the man he is most often compared with. With Trump in the GOP’s populist lane, there was precious little room for anyone else.

“If you like Vivek’s message, you’re already voting for Trump,” Kochel said. “If Trump looked wounded like he wasn’t going to be able to get the nomination, Vivek might get another look. But Trump is leading by 30 points, so why throw away your vote?”

Indeed, trying to be Trump while also trying to beat Trump has put Ramaswamy in an awkward place messaging-wise. His latest argument for why he would be a better president than Trump is that he is less bloodied by the political and legal attacks to which Trump has been subject.

“They’ve got four different wars they’ve waged on this man,” he told NBC News’s Dasha Burns on Wednesday as part of the “Closing Arguments: Iowa” interview series. “At the end of the day, if we need a commander-in-chief who is going to lead us to victory, I think that our base needs to choose the general who is not yet wounded in that war.”

One advantage of Ramaswamy’s youthful ― and more libertarian ― brand of Trumpian nationalism is that however he fares in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will almost assuredly emerge unscathed with the party’s core base of Trump loyalists and alternative media consumers. In lieu of next Wednesday’s CNN debate, he will hold a live audience event in Des Moines with conspiratorial right-wing radio host Tim Pool.

“The Steve King endorsement is maybe a sign that he’s not really running for president, but he’s maybe running to be the next Alex Jones or Nick Fuentes or something that I don’t quite understand,” Kochel said.

Ramaswamy’s campaign and allies maintain that he is still well-positioned to defy the polls by turning out first-time caucusgoers who are less likely to respond to polling and watch television.

One such booster is former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who backed the two previous Republican winners of the Iowa caucuses: then-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016. He sees an excitement for Ramaswamy at campaign stops that reminds him of the late-moving momentum for Santorum.

“Sometimes when you’re swimming in the ocean, be careful of the undertow: You can’t see it, but you know it’s there,” he said. “There’s a real feeling that something’s going on that’s not being accounted for in polls.”

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