Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): It’s been a busy couple of months in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. Five candidates jumped into the race last month alone, bringing the total number of major candidates (by FiveThirtyEight’s definition) to 11. But how the candidates announced that they’re throwing their hats in the ring varied a lot, from the traditional announcement speech at a rally to a definitely non-traditional discussion on Twitter Spaces.
So let’s talk about the launches themselves — who had the best campaign launch? Who had the worst? And how much do campaign launches even matter?
I’m feeling cheerful today, so let’s start on the bright side. Which campaign launches were the most successful?
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): I think former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had the strongest campaign launch. I took a look at FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average on the day before candidates announced their campaigns and then two weeks after their launch date, and she saw the biggest bump: 5.2 percentage points.
|2 Weeks After
|Feb. 14, 2023
|April 2, 2023
|Tim Scott (exploratory)
|April 12, 2023
|Tim Scott (official)
|May 22, 2023
|May 24, 2023
|June 6, 2023
|June 7, 2023
|June 7, 2023
Now, this might be because she entered the race when it was just her and former President Donald Trump (so there was less competition for support), but I also think that was a smart decision. Trump was weaker in the polls back in February than he is today; in fact, on the day of Haley’s campaign launch, Trump was leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just 43 percent to 39 percent. In retrospect, I bet DeSantis wishes he had entered the race in February too.
Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): From a narrative standpoint, I thought Sen. Tim Scott had a good speech that hit all the notes you’d look for in a launch. It was casual, like a stump speech, and full of biography and his vision for the future. One of the first things he said was literally, “I’m proud to be an American.” And he told a story about having faith in America. “Today I’m living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression,” he said. It was a really forward-looking speech for a message that is so fundamentally conservative. But he didn’t get much of a bump from his launch.
meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): In terms of tone, I think Scott and Haley both did a good job positioning themselves as alternatives to Trump in their launches.
nrakich: Scott is interesting because he is the one candidate who launched an exploratory committee weeks before he officially announced his campaign. That may have helped him get two bursts of media attention. According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, the three major cable-news networks mentioned Scott in 415 different 15-second clips within a week of his first announcement and in 1,106 clips within a week of his second. That said, he only increased in the polls by about 1 point each time. Counterfactuals are impossible to know, but I wonder if he might have gotten a bigger boost if his announcement hadn’t been dragged out so much.
meredithconroy: According to analysis from FWIWnews, which tracks digital spending and strategy in politics, Haley’s announcement received more impressions online than Scott’s. That could be because his official announcement was expected, as you mention, and less newsy. She had the advantage of getting in first.
ameliatd: Jumping in with a bit of cold water here. None of the candidates we’ve mentioned so far are in the top three in our Republican primary polling average, so how successful can we really say those launches were?
nrakich: Exactly, Amelia. You asked at the beginning how much campaign launches even matter. And while you’d obviously rather have a good one than a bad one, I don’t really think they matter all that much.
Look at where Haley’s strong launch has gotten her: She’s currently polling in fifth place nationally. The polling boost she got after her announcement fizzled by late March/early April. And in the 2020 Democratic primary, then-Sen. Kamala Harris got the biggest polling bump from her campaign launch. And she was out of the race by the end of 2019.
meredithconroy: I think at most, a successful campaign launch increases name recognition and fundraising.
nrakich: Yeah, just having a good launch isn’t enough. You need to be able to capitalize on it.
Monica Potts: Republican candidates all have an unusual job to do this cycle, which is overcoming Trump’s built-in advantage as an ex-president. He barely had to announce his campaign because he was still getting media attention and remained in the public eye after his loss in 2020, and it was assumed he’d run again. So this also could just be a weird cycle due to Trump’s presence.
meredithconroy: Right. The current GOP field has a former president who remains incredibly popular with his base. A flashy video isn’t going to upend that dynamic.
Speaking of flashy, though: Can we talk about Miami’s mayor, Francis Suarez, before we move on to the launch failures?
nrakich: Haha, I was about to say the same thing, Meredith!
Monica Potts: I always love a literal take, and his announcement is an actual “I’m running” video.
meredithconroy: Yes, he’s really hitting us over the head with his athleticism in his launch video (and social posts), right? Our colleague Kaleigh Rogers has written about some of the actual hurdles Suarez faces trying to differentiate himself, which you should read. But one route is highlighting his youth and … let’s call it vigor. It’s effective when your major opponent, Trump, is in his late 70s.
nrakich: Yeah, it’s kinda corny, but it works?
meredithconroy: Well, the problem with a masculinity pitch in today’s GOP is that Trump has successfully shifted expectations about physical strength to a vision of masculinity that is projected or interpreted, instead of real. For example, swole Trump memes project traditional masculinity onto Trump, like his NFTs, where Trump cosplays as longstanding notions of American manhood (frontiersman, astronaut, etc.). Trump doesn’t need to actually run a marathon (or fly a fighter jet).
ameliatd: OK, so maybe even a good campaign launch doesn’t do much for you in the long run. But what about a bad campaign launch? Can a candidate do serious damage to themselves right at the starting gate? And … does that seem to have happened this year?
Monica Potts: Speaking of announcements that were dragged out, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that he was going to announce a few weeks before his formal announcement. And it had been obvious from his Sunday show appearances that he was going to run for months before that. I don’t know if it did damage, but it made his campaign launch in tiny Bentonville, Arkansas, anti-climactic. He’s one of only two major candidates you tracked, Nathaniel, who saw his polling average go down.
nrakich: Monica, I agree that Hutchinson probably had the worst campaign rollout. Some of that wasn’t his fault, as he announced on April 2 — just days after Trump got indicted for the first time, which really sucked up all the oxygen.
But he also bungled it by not doing very well in the invisible primary. That’s the jockeying for position that happens months, if not years, before the actual campaign. On paper, the governor of a medium-sized state like Arkansas should be at least a mid-tier contender. But Hutchinson didn’t build up a national profile while he was governor, he didn’t clearly signal that he was interested in the race and he was kind of wishy-washy on important issues to the GOP, like Trump and anti-transgender legislation.
meredithconroy: All of these candidates didn’t have what DeSantis did have, which was some semblance of party support. IMO, DeSantis’s planned launch had potential, by lining up party insiders to endorse him on his Twitter Spaces … but we all know how that went. (The DeSantis launch event included Twitter owner Elon Musk, and also featured conservative activist Chris Rufo, former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie.) That event began with 20 minutes of audio and other technical issues. Users had trouble joining and staying in the Space; at its peak, there were around 300,000 concurrent listeners. Even after the technical issues were resolved, the hosts and guests kept bringing it up in awkward fashion to defend it.
nrakich: Meredith, I have a pretty hot take on DeSantis: I think his campaign launch actually went fine. Obviously, the Twitter Spaces event was a technical disaster. But that wasn’t all he did — he also released a video and held a kickoff event in Iowa a few days later.
And, crucially, his entry into the race seemed to arrest a slide in the polls that DeSantis had been enduring for months. He went from polling at 26 percent nationally on April 19 to 20 percent on May 23, the day before his launch. And by June 7, he was back up to 24 percent. He actually had the second-biggest polling boost of all the candidates in my table above. Basically, I don’t think many actual voters noticed or cared about the Twitter thing.
meredithconroy: Interest in DeSantis did peak around his launch, if Google search traffic is any indication. But his glitchy launch and the strange Q&A was the initial story for days. All this is to say … I think his launch had the components of a huge success, but we will never know how much better he’d be doing now without those issues. So yeah, he’s still in this thing. But he could’ve been better off.
nrakich: Yeah, again, I keep going back to what might have been if he had announced in February and gotten a 4-point (or bigger?) boost then. Instead, he burned up his “Campaign Launch” card on a defensive play. (Which, to be clear, was still a good use of that card under the circumstances — he had to stop that polling slide. But it wasn’t optimal.)
ameliatd: OK, so it sounds like a couple of themes are emerging. One is that if you’re a high-profile candidate, maybe you get a little more leeway. (We haven’t talked about Trump’s launch at all!) But are there any lower-profile candidates who could have made a bigger splash at the outset and didn’t?
nrakich: I was high-ish on North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum when he announced his campaign. But he was half a point lower in the national polls two weeks after he launched his campaign than he was the day before it. I think his announcement very much got lost in the shuffle of two other higher-profile candidates announcing within the same 24-hour period (former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence). And although he’s been pouring money into his campaign, it hasn’t moved the needle.
The video he released a few days before his announcement also felt pretty old-fashioned — like a World War II documentary or something.
“A smart guy who’s achieved a lot.”
— a real line from that video
ameliatd: I will venture that it was more interesting than former Texas Rep. Will Hurd’s video, though, Nathaniel — that one is literally just Hurd in a suit, talking.
Monica Potts: Hurd doesn’t even have a snazzy background in that video, Amelia! He’s just in a room.
meredithconroy: Maybe Hurd is one of the numerous candidates who decided “now or never” after DeSantis’s OBJECTIVELY BAD launch ÐèÐ¯Ð¨Ðè¶, so production took a hit.
ameliatd: We’ve talked about most of the major candidates, so let’s take a step back. It sounds like in a lot of ways, the key to a good (or bad) launch isn’t about the event or video itself, it’s about the timing. And so by announcing on top of each other, did a lot of this year’s candidates make kind of an unforced error?
Not just asking this because it would have made our lives a heckuva lot easier if they hadn’t all jumped in during the same week in June …
nrakich: Maybe, yeah. Of course, they don’t know when the others are going to announce, so it’s hard to blame them. But yes, I think Burgum suffered from the timing of his announcement, and maybe Scott too since his official announcement came just two days before DeSantis’s much-hyped launch. I also think Suarez and Hurd could have gotten a lot more press if they had been the third and fourth major candidates in the race instead of the 10th and 11th.
meredithconroy: As Nathaniel mentioned, I think DeSantis would be in a stronger position right now had he launched sooner. So yes, I think it was an unforced error.
Monica Potts: And Trump’s first indictment kind of stepped on Hutchinson’s announcement, as Nathaniel mentioned.
nrakich: Yeah, good point, Monica: That one was within Hutchinson’s control. He could have postponed like a week, once the story had died down but was still fresh, and really framed his campaign as a response to Trump’s alleged lawlessness.
meredithconroy: Yes, so another unforced error there. Overall, I think it’s good advice that lesser-known candidates should announce sooner, so they can garner more media attention. I can understand how Republicans were maybe nervous to challenge the former president. But look at the field now! It’s huge. So it’s looking like it was a mistake to sit and wait.