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Is Vivek Ramaswamy’s biggest strength killing his campaign?

Entrepreneur and 2024 Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at a local restaurant during a visit in Cherokee, Iowa, on December 9, 2023, ahead of the Iowa caucus (AFP via Getty Images)
Entrepreneur and 2024 Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at a local restaurant during a visit in Cherokee, Iowa, on December 9, 2023, ahead of the Iowa caucus (AFP via Getty Images)

When you look at Vivek Ramaswamy’s early career, his entrance into the chaos that is Republican presidential politics makes at least some sense.

He worked at a hedge fund, QVT Financial, between 2007 and 2014, where he managed its biotech portfolio, which included investments in the firm then run by Martin Shkreli, the man who went to prison after he hiked up the price of a life-saving drug to eye-watering levels.

Mr Ramaswamy wrote in Woke Inc that he initially found Shkreli to be “brilliant” but also that he was “pathologically incapable of telling the truth” – a trait many now apply to Mr Ramaswamy.

Going from the cutthroat arena of biotech startups to the slugfest that is US politics in the Trump era, Mr Ramaswamy seemed to become one of the favourites of the terminally online young male conservatives who also formed the base for the campaign of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – some of whom may or may not be fans of podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan and former kickboxer Andrew Tate, the so-called “king of toxic masculinity” who has now been charged in Romania with rape, human trafficking, and forming a criminal gang.

On the stage at CPAC in March of this year, Mr Ramaswamy railed against wokeness, called the administrative state “unconstitutional” and argued for the shutting down of the Department of Education. For good measure, he said that “the FBI has gotten so cancerous that we need to shut it down”.

He was extreme, energetic and attention-grabbing. But at that point, only the most dedicated of conservatives had seen him in action. It now appears that the sustained attention he has received may not be doing him any favours.

At his peak in late August in FiveThirtyEight’s national GOP primary polling average, Mr Ramaswamy clocked in at 11.6 per cent. At that time, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was at 3.3 per cent. Several debates and many campaign events later, the roles have been reversed. Ms Haley is almost at 11 per cent, while Mr Ramaswmay is just over 4 per cent as of 22 December.

How did Mr Ramaswamy go from besting political veterans to consistently sinking in the polls?

When speaking to The Independent back in July, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, said of Mr Ramaswamy, “he’s good at this, right?”

“There’s no substitute to being good at this. He likes being at the centre of attention, has a knack for getting attention, is clearly enjoying himself … he enjoys the jousting in the media and interviews, he’s a good communicator,” he added at the time.

All of those attributes got him past step one of an upstart presidential campaign – getting attention.

‘The more you see of him, the less you like him’

Almost six months and four debates later, David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati in Mr Ramaswamy’s home state of Ohio, is blunt about what kind of a brick wall the biotech entrepreneur and anti-woke author has smashed into.

“Ramaswamy is somebody who the more you see of him, the less you like him. He’s somebody who really shines in small doses but who really couldn’t sustain that attention because what he’s best at is simply being outlandish and self-important – and you say, ‘Well, that’s exactly what Trump is’ – but he’s outlandish, self-important, and entertaining, which is a very different combination,” he says.

While former President Donald Trump is running on a platform of authoritarianism with a wink, Mr Ramaswamy is copying him but without a glint in the eye.

“So much of what Trump has benefited from has been just the development of the television character that he’s been playing for a very long time,” Dr Niven says. “Ramaswamy, for most Republican voters, was a totally brand new entity. And he failed to build out the character because there’s nothing to him other than he’s the kid in the classroom who did his homework and asks the teacher to make sure she collects it. And there’s just a limit to how impressed people are going to be by that.”

Part of the problem may be his reason for running.

“I would presume that he’s running because he would like to be very famous. And he saw this as a relatively easy way to vastly expand awareness of Vivek Ramaswamy. And in that respect, he was he was spectacularly correct,” Dr Niven says.

Another issue for Mr Ramaswamy – a good communicator – may be what he’s actually communicating.

Former Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, a top adviser on the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign and now at the Lincoln Project, tells The Independent that Mr Ramaswamy is a “ridiculous human being who has terrible opinions – I mean it’s a joke”.

“I think that there is a phenomenon of a Peter Thiel, Elon Musk-element of American politics of people who know nothing about politics, know nothing about foreign policy, that think because they made money, they should run the world,” Mr Stevens adds.

The strategist says he thinks Mr Ramaswamy is “very much that sort of tech bro”.

‘Continuously bothering somebody’

“Let’s be clear – getting through step one is a real accomplishment,” Dr Niven tells The Independent. “There were folks like Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina, who a lot of pundits believed was kind of the hidden talent in this race ... who couldn’t get to mass awareness.”

“So what’s the Ramaswamy problem? I think it’s twofold. One is that there’s no point at which he says to himself, ‘I could say something outlandish right now, but people wouldn’t like it’. He has absolutely no filter whatsoever. So by virtue of continuously talking, he’s continuously bothering somebody,” he adds.

“The second problem with the premise of his candidacy is he’s substantially a Trump cheerleader in a race in which he’s theoretically running against Trump. And that’s a that’s a tough thing to pull off,” Dr Niven notes.

Mr Ramaswamy has aggressively pushed a litany of baseless rightwing conspiracy theories, such as the climate crisis being a hoax, the white supremacist great replacement theory of political elites bringing in immigrants to replace the white population being Democratic policy, and claiming that the January 6 insurrection was an “inside job”.

‘The guy is just a kook’

“He’s an intensely unlikable human being – I mean, you wouldn’t sit next to this guy on a plane,” Mr Stevens says.

“Trump rallies used to be seen as a lot of fun. I don’t think anybody’s ever had fun at a Ramaswamy event – the guy is just a kook,” he adds, noting that “people run for president for lots of reasons – Newt Gingrich ran for president in 2012 as a book tour”.

“I think the problem with all of these candidates except for Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson is that they’re not offering anything that you don’t get more of with Donald Trump, and that includes Nikki Haley,” Mr Stevens says.

“He has the Putin position that America shouldn’t aid Ukraine. He’s called the Jewish president of Ukraine a Nazi. I mean, what more do you need to say?” he asks.

Mr Stevens went on to add that “there’s a strand of the Republican Party that likes Putin because they look at Russia and they see it as a world that they would like ... It’s run by white men. There are no women in power. Culturally, as Putin has famously said, ‘there are no gay people in Russia’. The elections are performative, not determinative. They like all that ... and Putin helped elect Trump.”

‘You couldn’t watch the debate and not see him’

The reason Mr Ramaswamy broke through in the first place may now be part of the reason why his momentum has ebbed away.

“Those initial debate moments where there were a lot of people on the stage, and where there’s a lot of uncertainty among voters who are open to a non-Trump candidate – you couldn’t watch the debate and not see him,” Dr Niven says. “An awful lot of those candidates could have just as easily not shown up to the debate for all of the effect they had on the conversation. I’m talking about Tim Scott, Hutchinson, Burgum –  they were cardboard cutouts out there, and he was a living, breathing person.”

But he adds that “once you demand all cameras be on you, you have to be able to do something with it”.

Not too extreme, but too strident

“I think ultimately, you can’t be too extreme for Republican primary voters, but I think you can be too strident, and this is a thing I think that a lot of Trump imitators miss – Trump is as extreme as you can get, but … there’s a certain joy in what he saying and doing and DeSantis misses that entirely,” Dr Niven says, adding that Mr Ramaswamy has fallen into the same trap.

Dr Niven notes that Mr Ramaswamy didn’t even push back on Mr Trump after the former president echoed the rhetoric of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, saying that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”.

“If there was ever a moment when you could say ‘maybe that’s a little much’ – this was that time,” Dr Niven says.

But Mr Ramaswamy instead “nods politely” and “says, ‘yep, that’s what I think too’”, he adds.

“It’s important how little of substance has come out of this entire race. Ramaswamy is a part of that, he’ll say anything at any time and he’ll deny he said it an hour later, and say it again the next day,” Dr Niven says.

Ramaswamy’s political future

“If a Republican is elected, I can certainly see him in the conversation for Cabinet posts. Somebody like Pete Buttigieg on the Democratic side, who rose to national prominence as a presidential candidate, and now is transportation secretary – I could see a path like that,” Dr Niven says. “There could be cable news shows and radio hosting opportunities if he wants to do that.”

Congress may be difficult for “folks who are used to being centre of attention individuals” as one of 435 House members or one out of 100 senators, he notes.

“It takes a willingness to degrade yourself that might even challenge him, to be a [Colorado Rep Lauren] Boebert or a [Georgia Rep Marjorie Taylor] Greene,” he adds. “There are opportunities in Ohio, it’s a Republican state. He certainly would have to fight off the vast infrastructure of Republican electeds here – he wouldn’t be able to waltz to it, but he would certainly enter any race in Ohio as a significant candidate.”

“American politics has entered this strange phase where you almost can’t lose in running for president, as long as somebody noticed you ran,” the political scientist says. “And I think that’s his storyline here.”

The Independent has reached out to the Ramaswamy campaign for comment.