DeSantis Is Making the Same Mistake Democrats Did in 2020

Twitter is real life for the people who are on it, but most people are not. Politicians ignore this at their peril.

Ron DeSantis staring at a phone
Photo-illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Ron DeSantis is the governor of one of the most scenic states in America. Reelected by eye-popping margins in 2022, he does not lack for superfans. And yet, instead of launching his presidential campaign in front of palm trees and adoring crowds, he did so last night on Twitter, in an awkward audio-only exchange with Elon Musk that took place after 25 minutes of excruciating technical difficulties.

It might seem strange for a presidential candidate who is arguing that Republicans should not tie their fortunes to an impulsive, internet-poisoned millionaire to announce his campaign by wedding it to an impulsive, internet-poisoned billionaire. But DeSantis’s choice of venue makes sense in context: It is the latest in a series of appeals to his party’s most online activists, who idolize individuals such as Musk and monopolize Twitter, the social-media site that Musk owns. Cultivating the base and wealthy donors is smart politics, and DeSantis is a better politician than both his progressive and pro-Trump critics admit. But as the Twitter-launch fiasco demonstrated, his obsession with the online could seriously hamper his prospects offline. Campaigns that mistake social-media virality for electoral reality tend to end poorly.

One of the many misguided lessons that politicians learned from Donald Trump’s 2016 success was that Twitter wins elections. But in fact, Trump’s first victory owed little to social media and more to traditional media. His candidacy capitalized on a decades-old reputation for business acumen that he had built through reality TV and the tabloids. The telegenic Trump then overwhelmed his Republican primary opponents by garnering ample media coverage, with cable news channels racing to air his raucous rallies live.

By contrast, one of the few things that even Trump’s own supporters repeatedly told pollsters that they didn’t like about him was … his tweets. This shouldn’t surprise. Social-media sites—and Twitter in particular—are rife with conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and niche jargon that have little resonance in the real world. This is why when politicians start talking like Twitter feeds, they start losing voters—which is exactly what happened to many Democrats in 2020.

Consider the case of “Defund the police.” That mantra, alongside its more radical cousin “Abolish the police,” emerged as a rallying cry during the 2020 protests after the killing of George Floyd, momentarily turning a previously marginal approach to policing into a mainstream one. Channeling righteous anger into a radical proposal, “Defund” quickly became an online litmus test, and many progressive politicians racked up retweets by embracing it. Judging by its online impact, the slogan was a smashing success.

It’s also not how anyone in the Democratic Party talks today. “I think allowing this moniker, ‘defund the police,’ to ever get out there, was not a good thing,” Keith Ellison, the progressive Minnesota attorney general, told the Washington Post reporter David Weigel in November 2021. “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police,” said President Joe Biden in his first State of the Union address, to a bipartisan standing ovation. “It’s to fund the police—fund them!” In late 2021, New York City elected Mayor Eric Adams, a Black former cop who promised to invest more in law enforcement, not less. This month, Philadelphia’s Democratic primary voters picked Cherelle Parker, a Black city-council member with an uncompromising tough-on-crime platform, to be the city’s likely next mayor. Meanwhile, Brandon Johnson, the newly elected mayor of Chicago, backed away from his previous “defund” position to secure his victory.

What happened? It turned out that although defunding was popular among the activists who disproportionately drive online progressive discourse, it was deeply unpopular with voters. Polls found that most Americans, including Black voters, overwhelmingly rejected defunding the police, and the slogan proved to be a millstone around the neck of many candidates, even in relatively progressive regions. The Democratic lawmakers and donors who echoed this rhetoric neglected one basic truth: Twitter is real life for the people who are on it, but most people are not on Twitter. According to the Pew Research Center, just 23 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter, and of those, “the most active 25% … produced 97% of all tweets.” Simply put, almost all tweets come from less than 6 percent of American adults—far from a representative slice of the broader public.

But one Democrat didn’t fall into the Twitter trap. Not coincidentally, Joe Biden is now the president. In the 2020 Democratic primary, while his rivals competed to cater to the latest enthusiasms of the online left, the former vice president consolidated the party’s more moderate mainstream. In the general election, Biden’s aggressively offline campaign helped Democrats avoid the worst consequences of their 2020 Twitter excesses, as he was not implicated in them, and tended to treat social media as a place to be managed by staffers, not mirrored by the candidate. Trump, on the other hand, dove down every internet rabbit hole, ranting during speeches and debates about obscure bit players in online conspiracy theories at a time when a pandemic was ravaging the country. He lost by 7 million votes.

No politician can or should ignore social media, which still drives a lot of public discourse and engages many activists. The sweet spot is rather to be aware of the internet but not consumed by it. My colleague Derek Thompson refers to this as being “optimally online.” And for a while, it looked like Ron DeSantis had mastered this maneuver. He hired an army of pugilistic spokespeople, most notably his former press secretary Christina Pushaw, who reveled in trolling reporters and liberals on Twitter, including labeling Democratic politicians “groomers.” By delegating this operation to staff, DeSantis was able to appeal to his party’s most rabid Twitterati while maintaining distance and deniability from their actions, preserving his appeal to everyday voters even as he provided virtual red meat to the online base.

Now, however, it’s starting to look like this was not a strategy but just the first stage of internet poisoning that threatens to overwhelm DeSantis’s presidential campaign. In recent months, the governor has sounded less like a populist politician and more like an instantiation of his party’s worst Twitter talkers. Take DeSantis’s hard turn against transgender rights. “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” declared The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, who has nearly 1 million followers on Twitter, in March. His colleague Matt Walsh regularly dubs transition care for minors “abuse” and “mutilation” to his 1.8 million followers. But what excites reactionary Twitter doesn’t move voters: Most Americans oppose discrimination against transgender people, even as they express apprehension about medical transition for minors or the participation of trans athletes in women’s sports. And yet, earlier this month, DeSantis signed and celebrated a bill that, in his words, “permanently outlawed the mutilation of minors.”

In other words, the ill-fated launch event with Musk wasn’t a one-off miscalculation. It was the latest instance of DeSantis losing sight of the electorate in favor of online obsessions. Tellingly, in his 67-minute appearance last night, the governor repeatedly derided the “woke” left but never mentioned Trump—the candidate DeSantis must dethrone if he is to claim the nomination.