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Whither Vivekmentum?
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Whither Vivekmentum?

Ramaswamy’s expected post-debate surge hasn’t happened. Yet.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy at the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Most pundits hate having to eat crow for their bad predictions. Not me.

The hardest part of my job is finding a topic each morning. When the opportunity for an “I’m an idiot” mea culpa presents itself—and there are many such opportunities—that’s an easy day at the office.

I’m going to offer one of those mea culpas here, but my ego demands that we begin with two caveats.

One: We shouldn’t be too firm yet in our conclusions about the post-debate state of the Republican primary. We’re more than a week removed from the big night in Milwaukee, which feels like enough time for a Take, but public opinion gels slowly after a major political development. Come mid-September, once reaction to the debate is fully priced in, the polls might look different from how they look right now. I could be right in the end, and soon-ish.

Let’s hope, as the only column easier to write than “I’m an idiot” is “No, really, I’m a genius.”

Two: As we’ll see, I was really only half an idiot in this case.

Last Thursday I pronounced Vivek Ramaswamy the winner of the debate. He was the most demagogic candidate onstage and modern Republicans love themselves a demagogue, I reasoned. Ramaswamy had done so well, in fact, that a meaningful bounce in the polls now seemed inevitable. Quote:

His candidacy seems to be an experiment in how far an intelligent no-name can go in a modern Republican primary by doing nothing more than “repeating right-wing rhetoric gleaned from conservative media back to an audience that consumes that same media.”

My guess, per next week’s polling: Further than everyone except Donald Trump.

Nope. Not yet, at least.

A week later, Ramaswamy remains in third place in two prominent polling averages. RealClearPolitics had him at 7.2 percent on the day of debate; seven post-debate national surveys later, he’s at 7.3 percent, still more than 6 points behind Ron DeSantis. FiveThirtyEight also sees him treading water after Milwaukee, declining slightly from 9.7 percent nationally on debate day to 9.2 percent today. That’s based on 11 separate polls. Here too he remains almost 6 points behind DeSantis.

What happened to “Ramaswamentum,” as Matt Yglesias calls it?

Before we run through what I (probably) got wrong, let’s start with what I pretty clearly got right.


The demagogue did win the debate.

At worst, according to the polls, he was one of the two most impressive performers of the night.

When Team Trump’s pollster put the question to voters, the answer was clear:

A YouGov national poll published on Thursday corroborated that. Among Republicans and “leaners,” 31 percent said Ramaswamy won followed by DeSantis at 19. On the related question of which candidates did well (or won) versus which did poorly, Vivek scored highest at 48-11. The governor was next at 44-15.

The Daily Mail conducted its own post-debate online poll. No surprise: Ramaswamy finished on top, a point ahead of DeSantis. When the Drudge Report invited its many readers to weigh in via a (very unscientific) survey on its homepage, Vivek won going away—33 percent to Nikki Haley’s 22.

One poll had DeSantis ahead of Ramaswamy, but only just. A snap Washington Post survey after the debate found 29 percent thought the governor performed best versus 26 percent who thought Vivek did. 

All things considered, the demagogue won. In the eyes of Republican voters he did as well as, if not better than, Trump’s most formidable opponent for the nomination. I was right.

So … where’s the bounce for Ramaswamy in primary polling?

Typically when a little-known candidate makes a splash on a national stage he’s showered with cash by dazzled grassroots donors. For Vivek, the shower was more like a drizzle. He raised $625,000 in the 24 hours after the debate, a nice sum but less than the $1 million DeSantis received over the same period. Haley also claimed to have topped $1 million afterward, although that was over a 72-hour period.

True Ramaswamentum would have produced a so-called “money bomb.” What Vivek got was something more like a money squib.

I thought he did everything right at the debate to make himself a new populist folk hero. He smeared his opponents as having been bought and sold by special interests. He enthusiastically opposed further aid to Ukraine. He scoffed at Mike Pence’s “morning in America” shtick, insisting that the country is living through a “dark moment.” All night long he sang from the MAGA hymnal. His reward has been a slew of national media appearances and not much else.

Where did he go wrong?

Unlike Yglesias, I don’t think expectations of a Vivek surge were the result of “Bored Journalist Syndrome,” in which reporters get restless during a static and unsuspenseful campaign and set about wishcasting dramatic developments to liven things up. Ramaswamentum was, and perhaps still is, plausible. Why, an odd poll here or there might even convince you that it’s already begun.

It could happen. But in the national averages? Not yet. In fact, according to one poll, Vivek’s popularity among Republicans actually declined slightly after the debate.

Why? I have three theories, none mutually exclusive.

He’s preternaturally annoying.

At least twice in previous columns I’ve tried to capture in passing why I find Ramaswamy so irritating and I’ve been unhappy with my effort both times. That’s not because I had trouble articulating my feelings.

It’s because there’s so much to say that it can’t be done succinctly. It calls for a dedicated essay. The shortest way to express it is this: Vivek really might be more off-putting than Ted Cruz.

With Cruz, at least you come away thinking that he knows what he’s talking about. If you’re going to be condescended to by a smug fake-populist convinced he’s the cleverest person in any room, it helps when he’s not also coming off like an ignoramus.

The definitive meditation on Ramaswamy’s unlikability is this piece by Josh Barro, who overlapped with the candidate at Harvard two decades ago and now finds himself overcome by the urge to punch him in the face. Vivek is a quintessential “section guy,” Barro writes, and if that term is as unfamiliar to you as it is to me, no worries. Harvard may have more section guys than other schools, but anyone who went to an elite college knows the type. Anyone who went to any college knows the type.

Anyone who went to any school whatsoever knows the type. Barro defines him as “that guy in your discussion section who adores the sound of his own voice, who thinks he’s the smartest person on the planet with the most interesting and valuable interpretations of the course material, and who will not ever, ever, ever shut up.” No matter the subject, section guy has it all figured out—so much so that at times he seems faintly insulted that he’s being asked to think through difficult questions that aren’t the least bit difficult for an intellect such as his.

That’s insufferable in the best of circumstances. But when section guy’s inane yet self-assured babbling about complex subjects like geopolitics makes clear that he hadn’t thought about any of it until five minutes ago, listening to him risks choking on your own bile.

It’s not hard to believe that populist Republicans watched Ramaswamy at the debate, nodded along with his points about Ukraine and so forth, but in the end simply couldn’t stomach his smugness. Everyone has run into a section guy at some point, a person who’s “superbly confident while also completely full of crap” in Barro’s words, and—to a man—everyone hates him.

If Vivek had Trump’s charisma, or if he were a bit more humble about the viability of his Rube Goldberg policy proposals, he really might be lifting off in the polls. As it is, I wonder if even Trump fans given to rewarding demagogues who tell them what they want to hear came away from the debate feeling that Ramaswamy is a bit too phony and eager to please even for them.

In the end, he might end up losing a likability contest to Ron DeSantis. Imagine.

He’s plainly BSing his way through this entire process.

Modern Republican voters have a high tolerance for con artists, you may have noticed.

High, but perhaps not limitless.

Ramaswamy’s con artistry is different from Trump’s, Barro notes. Both men eagerly exploit the grievances of the MAGA base “without any regard for how [their] resulting statements relate to truth, ideology, or the practicalities of American government.” But Trump tends to speak vaguely about policy because he seldom understands it and doesn’t want to pin himself down. When he promises to end the war in Ukraine in a day, for instance, he remains strategically fuzzy on the details.

Section guy has no need for vagueness. Why should he when he has all the answers? He’s happy to give you his very specific plans to solve the world’s problems. And if any of those plans prove painfully unworkable or, well, stupid, that’s fine too: Being one of the world’s smartest people, he’ll easily and artfully talk his way through it. 

In theory. In practice, Vivek has built a reputation with remarkable speed as an extraordinary BS artist, prodigious even by the standards of the post-Trump GOP.

On Wednesday the New York Times reviewed some of his greatest hits in a piece delicately titled, “Emulating Trump, Ramaswamy Shows a Penchant for Dispensing With the Facts.” The paper notes that he’s contradicted himself about things he’s said at rallies. And about Trump. And 9/11. And pardoning Hunter Biden. And mask-wearing, to name just a few examples. When called on those discrepancies, he either filibusters by insisting he’s been taken out of context or flatly lies that he never said what he obviously said.

It isn’t just the dreaded mainstream media that’s noticed, either. As Vivek’s star has risen, DeSantis fans have begun paying attention to his endless flip-flopping and posting lists of his worst offenses online. DeSantis-friendly figures in right-wing media have also gotten more aggressive about challenging him when his populist pandering contradicts traditional Republican beliefs:

He’s even been confronted by his younger self, who resurfaced in an old video this week, wondering why anyone would want a president who, uh, lacks government experience.

https://twitter.com/adhitoons/status/1692585961866289533

It’s strange to think of grassroots Republicans, of all people, recoiling from a candidate who lies to their faces and palpably hasn’t thought through many of the policies to which he pays lip service. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Trump gets away with murder intellectually because of the cultish dynamic that binds his supporters to him, not because he’s an unusually skillful liar. Ramaswamy’s post-debate travails might be a sort of lab experiment in how a MAGA Republican who hasn’t earned that same loyalty fares with the base when he’s caught in lie after lie—at least during a primary when there are other appealing alternatives on the ballot.

To the average populist, Vivek may come off less like Trump 2016 than like Romney 2012, desperately trying to flip-flop his way toward right-wing credibility and seeming more pathetic by the moment.

Trump voters and the remaining DeSantis voters are mostly locked in.

The basic math problem with Ramaswamentum is where, precisely, he’s supposed to find the votes to fuel a surge in the polls.

Supporters of traditional conservatives like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott detest him, I imagine. If you dislike Vivek’s policies, you’re certainly not going to be won over by his charm.

Trump supporters like him, but unfortunately for Ramaswamy, Donald Trump himself is on the ballot this year. There’s no substitute for the real thing among MAGA voters, as the governor of Florida is learning to his dismay. Even if there were, the “rally around the accused criminal” effect arising from Trump’s indictments will limit defections from his camp to Vivek’s.

The only candidate logically likely to bleed votes to Ramaswamy is Ron DeSantis, but that’s also easier said than done. Sure, there’s overlap among their respective bases insofar as they’re both loud and proud populists. But a key reason that many of the governor’s supporters have moved toward him, and away from Trump, is DeSantis’ record of policy wins in Florida. He has executive experience and knows how to use it. His voters relish it.

The last person those voters seem likely to switch to is a political newbie who’s never held office before. Particularly a newbie prone to contradicting himself on policy, which gives the impression that his views aren’t firm and might change once he’s handed power.

And so, if you’re a DeSantis voter who’s souring on your candidate for whatever reason, where are you more inclined to go? To Vivek, a political cipher whose personality grates on you? Or to a former president whom you like a bunch and whom you spent the better part of eight years doggedly defending?

There’s another problem for Ramaswamy. He’s running out of DeSantis voters to flip.

On Monday the governor reached his lowest number in national polling to date, landing at 13.0 percent. (Like Vivek, DeSantis hasn’t converted a relatively strong debate performance into a larger vote share.) Today he’s at 13.5 percent, less than half of the 30 percent he was pulling shortly before Trump’s first indictment. Those 13.5 percent are quite devoted to him, I suspect, having hung on this long. They’ve resisted every attempt by Trump thus far to win them back.

How likely is it that Vivek Ramaswamy will successfully crack the granite portion of DeSantis’ base that even Donald Trump has failed to penetrate?

There may be a few DeSantis diehards here and there who have grown to dislike Trump so much and/or become so firmly convinced that the GOP needs new leadership that they’d take Vivek over the frontrunner. But how many can there be, realistically? And if you’ve clung to DeSantis this long partly or wholly because you crave a Republican nominee who can win next year, what exactly is the argument that Vivek Ramaswamy would be more electable than Donald Trump?

I am very, very skeptical that a 38-year-old section guy who can’t stop contradicting himself and has some exploitable baggage of his own would be a stronger hand for the party to play than a candidate who won the presidency once before, enjoyed a roaring economy for most of his term, and then nearly won again. 

I’m also skeptical that the remaining DeSantis diehards will be willing to give up on him anytime soon, as there remains a possibility that anti-Trump Republicans will begin to coalesce around him as Iowa approaches. Even in his diminished state, the governor can more feasibly build a winning coalition than Vivek Ramaswamy can. DeSantis’ devout fans will stick with him in order to buy time for the rest of the party to come to that realization belatedly.
Add it all up and it may be that we’ll never see real Ramaswamentum in the national polls. Vivek might hang around for the next few debates, nipping at DeSantis’ heels, but come 2025 he’ll obviously have been relegated to a job with no real political influence. Fox News host, maybe. Or podcaster. Or, uh, vice president of the United States.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.