This article was first published in the On the Trail 2024 newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday and Friday mornings here.

Good morning and welcome to On the Trail 2024, the Deseret News’ campaign newsletter. I’m Samuel Benson, Deseret’s national political correspondent.

I hope you enjoyed your Labor Day weekend. If you missed this story, here’s a great one from my colleague Gitanjali Poonia about Biden’s complicated relationship with labor unions.

The Big Idea

Vivek Ramaswamy’s hard sell

Walking around the Iowa State Fair with Vivek Ramaswamy was much like I imagine it would be to traverse Hollywood Boulevard with a B-list celebrity. He’d stop every few steps to take a photo or shake a hand, smiling all the while, as onlookers shouted some pronunciation (usually incorrect) of his first name. And who can blame them? At the state fair, it’s expected that every presidential hopeful will show up, and when a person attracts a crowd it’s a fair guess they want your vote. 

But Ramaswamy seemed to relish it. This is his strategy — shake every hand and kiss every baby and sign every hat, even as his press adviser urged him to just keep walking, even as his comms director begged him to “walk with me, we need to walk in a straight line, boss.” And the staffer had a point — what should’ve been a five-minute walk from the cattle barn to the radio studio was taking nearly 15, as Ramaswamy zigzagged to greet person after person after person.

One couple stopped him and asked him to visit their hometown — Mount Pleasant, Iowa, population 9,000. “Make it a pinky promise. That’s what we do here in Iowa,” a woman said. Ramaswamy pointed to his press secretary. “Let’s go to Mount Pleasant!”

And so it went. Ramaswamy had chatted up so many Iowans during his Saturday at the fair that he lost his voice by 1:30 p.m., and when a Semafor reporter asked for a pull-aside interview, she was directed instead to Ramaswamy’s wife.

This has become the Ramaswamy way. For a political newcomer with low name recognition, he’s blitzed every early-voting state and appeared on nearly every TV program possible. His campaign told The Messenger it posts on social media “every 37 minutes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and every 60 to 90 minutes on weekends.” He put on a show at the first GOP debate, becoming the singular target of many of the challengers’ attacks. After the debate, his was the most-Googled name. 

The strategy has its drawbacks. In a profile in The Atlantic, Ramaswamy was quoted comparing 9/11 to the Jan. 6 attack. He claimed he was misquoted. The Atlantic released the audio from the interview — and it was just as they printed it. Then last week, on Fox News, host Sean Hannity pressed him on a statement about Israel. Ramaswamy, again, claimed it was false.

“I have an exact quote. You want me to read it?” Hannity countered.

And then days later, Larry Elder — another GOP long shot candidate — told me one of Ramaswamy’s best-performing lines about fatherhood was stolen from Elder, and Ramaswamy had promised to give him credit. “It was kind of bothersome that he did not credit me with raising the issue nobody was talking about,” Elder said.

The national media can’t seem to figure out what to do with him, either. His pitch to voters is that he’s an anti-establishment political outsider with a strong business record (his campaign manager uses the title of “campaign CEO”). For some, it gives flashes of 2016. For others, there is less ambiguity — The Washington Post called him “Trump 2.0.” But his recent claims at being “misquoted” by journalists “revealed how much of Ramaswamy’s campaign strategy depends on doing interviews with reporters who won’t challenge his ideas,” one writer in The Hill said. 

Our conversation in Iowa was fairly brief, but we covered a range of issues: immigration, religious liberty, his Hindu faith. On refugee policy, he said he’d lower the refugee cap “darn close to zero,” a drastic deviation from precedent. He claimed immigration should advance the interests of American citizens, not “some other exogenous humanitarian objective.” 

I pushed on this. “Is there any benefit to humanitarian immigration in your mind?” Refugees provide a net fiscal benefit to the U.S., not to mention cultural or social contribution. Other forms of humanitarian immigration, like the Temporary Protected Status program, offer a net benefit to the U.S. economy, too.

“I mean, there’s a benefit to the world,” Ramaswamy said. “But unfortunately, I think our reality is that that’s hurting the United States. And so my view is that the way the U.S. can best serve the world is by prospering and being strong and home. Actually, I think when we are strong, we set an example of what is possible in the free world.”

It’s a new take on America First, with a younger, smoother-talking spokesman. Not all are convinced — conservative writer David French, in his latest New York Times column, argues that Ramaswamy is simply the personification of America’s civic illiteracy — “exceptionally articulate but also woefully ignorant.” As I sat through the debate in Milwaukee, I got a string of texts from Kirk Jowers, the former director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics (once called “the most quoted man in Utah”). Jowers’ last text was brief. “His naïveté is breathtaking,” he said.

He uses his youthfulness as a selling point (at 37, he’s the youngest candidate to ever run for president). But not too young — he’s advocated changing the voting age to 25. He claims to have no desire to be vice president — in Iowa, I heard him tell a group of voters that neither he or Trump “do pretty well in a No. 2 position” — yet he is exceptionally careful to never, ever critique the former president. (He’s the only candidate who’s vowed to unconditionally pardon Trump.) Trump has responded in kind, saying Ramaswamy would “be very good” as a VP.

But you don’t have to look hard to see his appeal to the average voter. He’s quick on his feet and charismatic. He raps Eminem and pulls his wife, an accomplished doctor, onto the stage alongside him. After he finished a stump speech on the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the fair, a woman sitting on a nearby bench — just within earshot — stopped me.

“Who was that guy? He’s really good,” she asked. 

I told her it was Vivek Ramaswamy.

She looked confused. “Who?”

The latest from Deseret News’ 2024 election coverage

What I’m reading

What to watch

The two South Carolina candidates — Nikki Haley and Tim Scott — trek northward this week to New Hampshire, vying for support in the early-voting state. Haley will headline an event with Moms for Liberty on Wednesday, trying to win over parents with her views on school choice and parental involvement in education. Scott will headline Scott Brown’s Backyard BBQ In New Hampshire on Thursday, a pivotal campaign stop for Republican hopefuls.

Anything you want to see from our election coverage? As always, my inbox is open: onthetrail@deseretnews.com

See you on the trail.

Samuel

Editor’s Note: The Deseret News is committed to covering issues of substance in the 2024 presidential race from its unique perspective and editorial values. Our team of political reporters will bring you in-depth coverage of the most relevant news and information to help you make an informed decision. Find our complete coverage of the election here.