At a ritzy boutique hotel on Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, dozens of young voters braved subzero temperatures to see Vivek Ramaswamy deliver what they would soon learn to be his final speech as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
After thanking his team, campaign volunteers, and, of course, everyone watching the livestream, Ramaswamy suspended his campaign. “We’ve looked at it every which way and I think that it’s true that we did not achieve the surprise that we wanted to deliver tonight,” Ramaswamy told his room of supporters. “There is no path for me to be the next president absent things we don’t want to see in this country.”
Since Ramaswamy launched his campaign last February, his team had set out to energize millennials and Gen-Z voters, demographics that have traditionally supported Democrats in overwhelming numbers and that other Republican politicians have largely written off. To do so, the campaign flooded the internet at every opportunity with his “anti-woke” vision for America in TikTok videos, Instagram livestreams, and podcast appearances. He tried to weaponize the far-right corners of the internet as well, boosting conspiracies like the great replacement theory.
“When we launched the campaign, we set up a podcast. You typically hire political staff in first, but we started with production staff,” a senior Ramaswamy staffer told WIRED while describing the campaign’s digital media strategy Monday night. “One of our first hires was a videographer to follow him around seven days a week.”
But it wasn’t enough. As millennial indie favorites from artists like the Naked and Famous boomed over the ballroom’s PA system Monday night, it became clear that social media content—even when paired with a ceaseless ground game—cannot save a longshot presidential campaign. Less than an hour after caucus doors opened, major news outlets like ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC had called the state for former president Donald Trump, and the late-game “surge” the Ramaswamy campaign foretold never actualized. As of publication, Ramaswamy finished with around 8 percent of the vote in Iowa, less than half of what Haley’s third-place finish achieved.
Even as temperatures fell to well below zero over the weekend, Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who funded his campaign with the fortune he’d made in the biotech industry, continued to shake mitten-covered hands in packed pizza joints and American Legion halls. Before arriving at the hotel Monday evening, Ramaswamy had finished an impressive monthslong tour of the state, holding nearly 400 events across every county hoping to “shock” the pollsters, he repeatedly said, by securing more points than Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley.
But most of his campaign was focused on the internet. While DeSantis and Haley drew comparable crowds in-person, Ramaswamy had them beat online. While racing from one campaign event to another, Ramaswamy spent his travel time on X livestreams, answering audience questions or holding ridealong interviews with political content creators like Link Lauren. Instead of cable news hits and newspaper interviews, the Ramaswamy campaign invited a slate of popular right-wing personalities and influencers, like Candace Owens, Benny Johnson, Mike Cernovich, and Isabel Brown to join them along the campaign trail instead.