Ewan Larkin
May 28, 2023

Twitter has a place in presidential campaigns - just not launching them

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ campaign kickoff on Twitter was a bust for several reasons. But the platform is useful to campaigns in other ways.

Twitter has a place in presidential campaigns - just not launching them

Public affairs and political communications experts have a message for candidates after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ campaign launch on Twitter Spaces was plagued by technical issues: Don’t forget about traditional media.

Listeners trying to join DeSantis’ Twitter Space on Wednesday evening experienced garbled audio and outages before the stream cut out. The Florida governor finally declared his bid 25 minutes after the event was due to start. 

Republican donor David Sacks, who co-hosted the event alongside Twitter owner Elon Musk, said the platform’s servers could not support the amount of people trying to join the Space. 

“We got so many people here that we are kind of melting the servers, which is a good sign,” Sacks said.

Twitter itself isn't new to politicians. More than a decade ago, President Barack Obama hosted a live town hall on the blue bird app, taking questions from users in a session moderated by cofounder Jack Dorsey. But Spaces, Twitter’s live audio tool, isn’t as well-tested. 

Alex Conant, partner at public affairs agency Firehouse Strategies, gives DeSantis credit for “trying something different.”

“I think candidates are always going to embrace new platforms to show that they’re up to date with the latest tech trends,” Conant says, adding that he helped to use Facebook to launch former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential bid in 2011. 

Conant says that pairing with conservative fan-favorite Musk made sense for DeSantis, potentially helping to draw in his audience, but adds that the Republican candidate ultimately took a gamble by announcing on Spaces.

“Your announcement sets the tone for the remainder of your campaign,” he said. “It’s the one thing the candidate can completely control, and your goal should be to reach the maximum audience and get the biggest bump possible.”

More than 600,000 viewers tuned into the first Twitter Space, which quickly crashed. The second stream garnered roughly 300,000 concurrent listeners. As of Thursday, 3.4 million people had listened to the session or a recording of it, according to Twitter.

In comparison, last month, more than 3 million people concurrently listened to a BBC reporter interviewing Musk on Twitter Spaces. 

For a presidential campaign, Twitter should be used for shaping media or reaching influencers, not to reach voters, says Stephanie Cutter, a founding partner at Precision Strategies and former top communications aide to Obama. 

“The only thing [the Twitter launch] influenced was 24 hours of media coverage on what a colossal failure it was not only because it literally failed, but because it wasn’t very strategic,” she says. 

SKDK president Pia Carusone echoes Cutter’s sentiment, claiming that Twitter “has a place” in presidential campaigns, but that it shouldn’t be where the conversation “starts or ends.”

“[Twitter’s] most important role is influencing reporters and communicating with people that have legitimately big networks. That’s where it can make the biggest difference,” Carusone details. 

In launching exclusively on Twitter, DeSantis siloed his announcement and missed out on reaching key parties, she says. 

“Whether you’re running for president or Congress, you need to let different groups of people know, first and foremost, your local communities, and then you stretch out from there: national press, influencers, donors and the American public,” she says. 

Conant, who served as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) presidential campaign, says DeSantis needs to focus more on traditional media, a tried-and-true formula. He emphasized that the Republican candidate hasn’t done a press conference with local reporters or spoken with a national newspaper since the launch. 

“Those are all things that every other candidate is doing, including [former President Donald] Trump,” Conant explains. “I guarantee you more people saw and heard [Sen.] Tim Scott (R-SC) [announce his campaign] on Monday, even though DeSantis is ahead [of Scott] in the polls.”

Cutter, who served as deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 campaign, says DeSantis should have launched his bid on his own terms. 

“There are so many better options, including simply hosting your own video town hall and in the process attracting new audiences that you can go back to for fundraising or organizing,” she says. “There are few bigger moments than announcing for president in terms of reaching or expanding your audience. He blew that moment.”

DeSantis' technical woes didn’t scare off donors. In the first 24 hours after his announcement, the Floridian raised $8.2 million, just shy of Trump’s $9.5 million haul in the first six weeks after his 2024 launch. 

While the aforementioned numbers are promising, Carusone says DeSantis needs to focus on authentically reaching and communicating with the American people. 

“You have to be authentic and focus on real people and the issues that matter to them, not just winning the Twitter war,” she says. 

As of Thursday, Trump led Republican candidates in national polling with 54%, compared with DeSantis’ 20.7%, according to FiveThirtyEight


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