WINDHAM, N.H. — Vivek Ramaswamy will return your call. He’ll say “yes” to almost any interview request — no matter the outlet — and will linger long after scheduled events die down, autographing a piece of fruit or letting prospective supporters lay hands on his chest to cancel Satan’s plans.
It’s the most always-on, always-available strategy of the 2024 presidential race. And it appears to be working.
Ten weeks after Ramaswamy launched his presidential run, the wealthy 37-year-old biotech entrepreneur has suddenly moved from suspected vanity campaigner to a contender polling in one recent measure on par with established Republicans like former Vice President Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott.
Ramaswamy is now, according to a CBS poll out last week, tied with Pence for a distant third place in the GOP field. And he has become a credible enough threat to higher-polling Republicans that apparent opposition research against him has started flowing: Notably, a top operative working to boost Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently shared on Twitter a story about Ramaswamy paying to alter his Wikipedia page. Even primary frontrunner and former President Donald Trump took notice, saying in a jab at DeSantis on Friday that he was “pleased to see” Ramaswamy “doing so well.”
Ramaswamy is still a longshot. But the attention he has quickly drawn is significant in a primary in which DeSantis has slid well behind Trump in primary polling while other Republican candidates scramble to make their mark.
“America First without the chaos,” is how Bob Meisterling, a 40-year-old in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, described Ramaswamy’s appeal.
An Obama-Trump voter and “right of center” Republican, Meisterling said if the Iowa caucuses were held today, he would back Ramaswamy. And Meisterling, who owns a golf simulation studio, is making a rare exception to his rule of not talking politics with his customers by inviting Ramaswamy to come by his business this weekend during an Iowa bus tour. The campaign is taking him up on the offer.
Prior to launching on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox in February, Ramaswamy was a regular on cable news programs and podcasts, despite being little-known by most Republican primary voters. But after high-profile tangles with mainstream television hosts Don Lemon and Chuck Todd in recent weeks, a barrage of media hits and an aggressive calendar of early state retail-politicking, Ramaswamy is now firmly on the radar.
It’s a campaign that blends the youthfulness and hustle of Pete Buttigieg’s run in 2020 with the extremely online nature of Andrew Yang’s millennial fan base — except that Ramaswamy is a conservative running on an “America First 2.0” promise to take Trump’s policy agenda “further than Trump.” His eclectic coalition of supporters includes self-described moderates, family values conservatives, crossover voters, Trump/DeSantis fans and even those who are curious about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., according to interviews with Ramaswamy supporters at a recent town hall in New Hampshire and in other early nominating states.
In New Hampshire on Wednesday, about 70 people packed into a small room of the local business center in Windham for a stop on Ramaswamy’s second bus tour of the state. For sale were “Bud Right” koozies emblazoned with Ramaswamy’s photo, a nod to a recent conservative boycott of Bud Light after the company hired a transgender woman as a paid influencer. The audience filled with both the Ramaswamy-curious and superfans. A man at the mic was on the brink of tears, and a 19-year-old college student in the front row had returned to see him after recently meeting Ramaswamy at an event in Ohio. One woman was so excited about seeing Ramaswamy a second time that she brought two friends along, while across the room, an older man who said he’d never been to a political event before pledged Ramaswamy his vote.
Britton Albiston, a 50-year-old Bedford Republican who describes herself as “not a Trump lover” and “not old enough to be Vivek’s mother — but probably could have been his babysitter,” said she wants to nominate someone with enough energy to lead the country for eight years. She said she likes that he isn’t a “professional deflector.”
“He’s not deflecting to his favorite three points. He’ll openly say, ‘You may not like my answer, but I’m going to tell you how I feel,’” Albiston said.
Like Buttigieg when he launched his presidential campaign, Ramaswamy is still years away from 40, making him “the first millennial to ever run for president as a Republican,” as he touts on the campaign trail. And while Ramaswamy has a long way to go before his online following comes close to reaching the organizational structure of the Yang Gang, there are already the makings of it: A handful of supporters on Twitter are trying to make #VekHeads happen.
It’s unclear if they’ll succeed. Even Ramaswamy’s early supporters don’t shy away from the question of whether he can overcome Trump, DeSantis and other bigger-name Republicans in the primary.
“All of what you say is great,” Thomas Petrarca, an independent voter in Windham, told Ramaswamy during his post-stump-speech Q&A on Wednesday. “But the first step is: How are you going to overcome the national recognition, the name recognition of your opponents?”
Ramaswamy responded that his campaign strategy is “an open book.” He said he plans to “slowly and steadily” work his way to third-place by the end of the year.
“And then we want to come here and we want to win New Hampshire, and then we want to change the momentum and actually win the rest of the race,” he said. “That’s the plan we’re taking.”
Indeed, most of Ramaswamy’s ad spending to date has been concentrated in the Boston media market, which reaches New Hampshire. And while money is one thing he isn’t short of, Ramaswamy is milking the free earned media: In the last week of April, he gave roughly 43 interviews with radio, print and television reporters, a blitz that ranged from local early-state outlets to Comedy Central’s “Tooning Out The News.”
The roughly $1 million that Ramaswamy has spent on ads so far in the Republican primary trails only the super PACs of DeSantis and Trump, which have each dropped $8 million to $10 million on television. But nearly half of Ramaswamy’s investment in advertising, and more than any other candidate, according to AdImpact, has gone to ads on streaming television platforms — a sign that Ramaswamy is targeting a younger demographic than traditional cable and broadcast viewers.
With DeSantis and other higher-profile Republicans expected to get into the race within weeks, Ramaswamy — if he becomes competitive — will be forced to defend some of his more strident policy positions. Meisterling, the Ramaswamy fan in Cedar Rapids, suggested the entrepreneur-turned-politician may need to make clearer proposals when it comes to overhauling the federal government. What happens, logistically, if you shut down the Department of Education, FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other agencies, as Ramaswamy has proposed?
“He has bold ideas,” Meisterling said. “From a practical standpoint, they can come across uncertain as to what the outcomes are.”
Asked about Ramswamy’s claim that he will exceed Trump’s “America First” initiative, and do so without “personal vengeance and grievance,” Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung pointed to Trump’s overwhelming lead in the Republican field. It is Trump, Cheung said, who is “the unquestioned leader of the America First Movement,” and has laid out a “bold agenda” for a second term.
Still, Ramaswamy appears to be pulling at least a small part of that movement. In New Hampshire, Fred Doucette, the state’s deputy House majority leader who served as a Trump campaign co-chair in New Hampshire in 2016 and 2020, is now a senior strategist and state campaign chair for Ramaswamy. He said he got a similar “gut feeling” from Ramaswamy that he got when he first met Trump — only Ramaswamy is more “inspirational.”
On the way into Ramaswamy’s Windham town hall, Anthony Henry, a young Republican activist interning with the state GOP, snagged a branded baseball cap and declared Ramaswamy “the smartest person running for president.”
Except he can’t actually vote for Ramaswamy. He’s only 15.