Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is leaning into his controversial positions as he looks to build momentum after a standout performance at the first GOP debate last week, but strategists warn his attention-grabbing moves could backfire on his campaign.
Ramaswamy during the debate called the “climate change agenda” a “hoax” and took fire for saying he’d cut funding to Ukraine. Ahead of the event, he came under scrutiny for comments that appeared to question whether federal agents were on the planes involved in the 9/11 attacks. In the days after, he compared Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to “modern grand wizards” of the Ku Klux Klan and doubled down after criticism.
The political newcomer has been rising in Republican primary polling and reported a fundraising spike after taking the debate stage, but some new surveys show his popularity slipping slightly among Republican voters.
“It may get you attention, but not the attention you should want if your goal is to win,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, who cautioned that the candidate’s demeanor during the debate might have come off to many as a “smart-alecky little brother that starts fights at the dinner table.”
Ramaswamy’s podium was positioned center-stage beside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) during the event in Milwaukee, in a lineup that put the highest-polling competitors in the middle of their fellow competitors.
Former President Trump, who boasts a significant lead over the rest of the GOP field, skipped the closely watched showdown after much suspense over whether he would participate, leaving Ramaswamy and DeSantis side-by-side under the spotlight.
An ardent Trump supporter seen by some as a millennial version of the former president, Ramaswamy has promised to pardon Trump if he’s convicted in any of his various legal battles, and said he plans to invite Trump as a “mentor” and “adviser” to a possible Ramaswamy administration.
Republican presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy talks to members of the media in the spin room following the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
“Ultimately, his mouth is writing checks that his campaign’s not going to be able to cash,” said New Hampshire-based GOP consultant Jim Merrill.
“The way he’s getting attention for himself may end up hurting more than helping him,” Merrill added.
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Trump praised Ramaswamy after the debate, sharing a clip of the upstart entrepreneur calling Trump “the best president of the 21st century.”
Ramaswamy has been walking a delicate line of lauding the former party leader while also competing against him for the nomination, which some strategists say make his campaign messaging confusing for voters.
“If Donald Trump is that great, what is the rationale for challenging him? And he didn’t offer that rationale,” Heye said of Ramaswamy’s pro-Trump comments during the debate. “It’s hard to defeat somebody that you’re telling voters is awesome.”
With Trump absent, Ramaswamy took heat from several of his onstage rivals.
Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence appeared to knock the 38-year-old entrepreneur with a quip that “we don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
“Let me explain it to you, Vivek,” Pence said during another exchange. “I’ll go slower this time.”
In one fiery moment, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Ramaswamy has “no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at another point that he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”
The exchanges boosted Ramaswamy to the second-highest speaking time across the two-hour event, according to a CNN tracker, after Pence and one second ahead of Christie. Some Republicans argue that his aggressive performance was effective.
“The way he was able to dominate the debate against much more seasoned politicians was impressive. A lot of the debate can be scored on how much attention you get, and he got more than anybody else,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
A Washington Post, Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight poll of potential Republican voters who watched the GOP debate found 26 percent though Ramaswamy “performed best” at the event, in second place after DeSantis’s 29 percent, despite being less well-known beforehand.
But a Morning Consult poll showed Ramaswamy’s unfavorable rating among potential GOP primary voters go up from 12 percent to 19 percent in the days before and after the debate, a 7-point change, though his favorability rating dipped just 2 points to 53 percent.
And an Emerson College poll found that while a 27 percent plurality of GOP primary voters thought Ramaswamy won the debate, his overall support dropped from 10 percent to 9 percent.
Polling has also revealed that more voters recognize Ramaswamy after his debate showing, and the campaign reported raising $450,000 on Wednesday night after the debate.
GOP strategist Mark Weaver stressed that the White House hopeful’s next moves are critical in seizing momentum.
“His canvas was largely unpainted-upon prior to the debate, and he was able to put some brushstrokes up there. And now the question is: Who will continue painting? Him or his opponents? And that’s his key strategic challenge,” Weaver said.
Ramaswamy’s recent move to double down on his race remarks against Pressley over the weekend are likely an example of an effort to capitalize on the post-debate attention, the strategist suggested.
“In the Pressley comments, he’s saying things that the vast majority of Republican primary voters would agree with, but he’s saying them in a way that makes them much more newsworthy and gets more buzz,” Weaver said. “This is true about most of his comments. He has to be able to chart a conservative course, but do it in a flashy enough way to become noticed.”
But those comments also drew criticism from some Republicans, including fellow 2024 candidate former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who said his rival isn’t “really looking at real life in America.” Meanwhile, the comments pose risks for the GOP, which has sought to improve its standing among Black voters.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Conant says Ramaswamy is following “the Trump playbook” of leaning into controversy and contentious positions, though Trump’s previous campaigns have highlighted that the strategy risks alienating big blocs of voters.
“Controversy attracts attention, which is the lifeblood of presidential campaigns. As soon as Ramaswamy becomes boring, he quickly fades away,” Conant said.
But strategists aren’t sure any candidates on the first GOP stage could see a boost big enough to catch up to Trump at the front of the field — with many waiting to see if non-Trump voters consolidate behind one of the other contenders to make the race more competitive.
Without Trump in the field, Ramaswamy might be “a much more interesting candidate,” but “he’s literally running in Trump’s shadow,” Conant said.
Heye suggested that Ramaswamy knows his chances are slim.
“He’s clearly running to become famous,” he said. “And in that case, mission accomplished. What he then could do with that, I don’t think we know yet, and isn’t up to him.”
Trump, on Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV show Tuesday, responded to a question about whether he had given any consideration to Ramaswamy as a potential running mate.
Trump praised Ramaswamy’s “good energy” and said “he’s really distinguished himself,” but added that he’s been “getting a little bit controversial” and suggested he be “a little bit careful.”
Ramaswamy earlier this month said he isn’t interested in “becoming a No. 2 or a No. 3 in the federal government.”
“Donald Trump and I share something in common and that is that neither of us would do well in a No. 2 position,” he added.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean floated that Ramaswamy could be positioning himself as “a mini-Trump as a fallback,” waiting in the wings for the possibility that the former president can’t continue his 2024 bid because of his ongoing legal battles.
“Ramaswamy certainly, I think, relished the fact that Trump was not on the stage, so he could be the most Trump-like figure available for Trump voters to take a look at,” Bonjean said.