The Astonishing, Unexpected and Completely Modern Rise of Vivek Ramaswamy

UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio — A disembodied voice filters through the hallway of a $2 million estate in a leafy suburban neighborhood outside Columbus, as the early morning light floods an entryway near a winding staircase. At its base sits an empty chair surrounded by five audio-visual staffers.

“Guys, you can’t see my feet, right?” says the voice.

A second later, Vivek Ramaswamy materializes, barefoot, in a black suit with parts of his white dress shirt shooting out from beneath his suit vents. He got home at 11 p.m. the night before from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where his private campaign plane’s cabin had de-pressurized and he missed an event. But by 9 a.m. he was already geared up for a day of back-to-back media appearances. He takes a seat in front of a camera. Nearby, Ramaswamy’s personal security guard scans an iPad featuring 16 different views of his home, which, Ramaswamy told me, he purchased with cash in 2021.

It’s a Tuesday in early August, and the insurgent, mercurial millennial Republican presidential candidate and former biotech entrepreneur is briefly off the trail and back home readying to go on camera. First up is a two-hour podcast interview with Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist. Ramaswamy takes a seat and slides in a pair of AirPods.

He starts talking and he doesn’t stop. He once did some 30 interviews in one day alone, and has appeared on more than 150 podcasts since launching his campaign in February. For a while, the only outlet he couldn’t get on seemed to be MSNBC, which had not booked him for an interview until recently, something that had clearly gnawed at him before. (A few days after I sent an email asking an MSNBC spokesperson about their rationale for excluding him, Ramaswamy finally scored an appearance on the network; MSNBC didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Today is a “light day” he and his team tell me. He would end up sitting for roughly five hours of interviews. He is only scheduled for: two podcasts; a sit down with ABC; a conversation with a radio station out of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; an interview with Axios’ local Columbus website; an evening standup with NewsNation; and appearances on Fox News and CNN. That’s not to mention the two interviews he granted me while we drove around his hometown in his black Cadillac Escalade and a third interview in his backyard that evening as his youngest son Arjun played underfoot.

This is what it takes to go from zero percent in the GOP primary polls in February to 7 percent today. That puts him — at 38, the youngest presidential candidate in the field — solidly in third place. He’ll be at center stage at Wednesday’s first GOP debate, and if memos on Ron DeSantis’ strategy and pre-debate attacks from Mike Pence and Nikki Haley are any indication, all knives will be out for the political newcomer.

All politicians seek out the glare of cameras and banks of microphones. But no one in the 2024 presidential campaign has been as eager about getting in front of the media as Ramaswamy. In the fractured information landscape of the 2020s, a long-form podcast interview with Jordan Peterson can be far more productive than trying to gladhand in all 99 Iowa counties. His ubiquity is paying off. But it’s also what he’s saying that’s capturing news cycle after news cycle: The candidate who initially built his brand decrying “wokeism” recently vowed to pardon Donald Trump without regard for the seriousness of his charges; he has walked right up to the line and perhaps tiptoed over the edge of 9/11 trutherism, which he would double down on in his interviews with me; and he has raised questions about the “truth” of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Later, after he’d finished talking with Peterson, Ramaswamy will surpass DeSantis in the betting markets. I know this because he checked his phone as we were riding between his home and his headquarters and he was talking about how such markets were “actually” better indicators than public polling. According to AdImpact, he has spent about $2 million on TV and digital advertising — much less than his opponents, some of whom have spent 10 times that amount. Instead, he jams his days with bookings on television, radio and podcasts. Ramaswamy puts the “earned” in the phrase “earned media.”

As he sits for the Peterson interview at his home this morning, he is flanked by two tasteful plants and an American flag. He speaks with Peterson in a knowing way, like they’re both on a different, higher plane of existence and knowledge. He often peppers his responses with actually, implying that things are different than what you’d assume or expect. “I’m talking to voters that go beyond the traditional Republican primary base,” Ramaswamy tells Peterson.

“But everything that I’m saying here applies to the traditional Republican primary base as well. I think that our voters today are hungry for depth, actually, in a way that they may have never been.”

Not long into his interview with Peterson, some dishes clink in the sink as a housekeeper toils. Ramaswamy stops the interview, looks at me, and asks me to tell “them,” a woman I had never met, to quiet down. I panicked and broke out in a cold sweat. Tricia McLaughlin, a senior adviser to Ramaswamy who just came off the campaign of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, had disappeared. I heard myself ask the housekeeper if “we could keep it down during the recording,” and then awkwardly shrank back into my seat.

This relentlessly, frankly exhausting, all-out strategy of appearing on any and every media platform that will have him is how someone who has never run for office before is breaking through. That disembodied voice I heard as he came downstairs is how many people first encounter him. Tagging along with him as he voted on an Ohio ballot initiative later that day, I heard a man who described himself as one of Ramaswamy’s neighbors stop him after he gaggled with local press. “I’ve been listening to you on all the podcasts,” the fan says.

“It’s not really a strategy,” Ramaswamy told me when I asked him about how he’s used media ubiquity to leap ahead of a former vice president and several former and current governors. “It’s just how I’m wired.”

For Ramaswamy and his campaign, it’s content all the way down. For his headquarters, he picked an office inside a rustic, barn-like, two-story former horse stables. Ensconced on a picturesque hillside, the building, known as Horizons and shared by several other offices, is about a 3-minute drive from his home. A giant American flag flanks its side. Above the Vivek 2024 branded frosted glass doors hangs a sign that reads: “TRUTH. VIVEK.” Horizons is a suite of animation, editing, and audio studios that has done work for companies like pizza chain Donatos and some Columbus automotive outfit called Krazy Kenny’s Automotive.

The setup couldn’t be better for a candidate like Ramaswamy. His campaign invested an estimated $80,000 to turn one of the soundstages into a podcast studio, where he spent the first weeks of his campaign producing an episode of “The Vivek Show” nearly every day. His podcast is chatty and thoughtful. In one episode, he talks with Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery show “Dirty Jobs” about the value of skilled trades; in another, it’s him and Megyn Kelly talking about the power of personal responsibility. (His campaign has since dialed back podcast episodes to once a week, with the second season slated to begin soon.) Ramaswamy also has a podcast studio in his home basement, which functioned in the early days of his campaign as his first headquarters, alongside a sauna and a cavernous gym where he does renegade rows while getting briefed by his staff.

At one point, his campaign created a debate prep room here at the office in one of the sound studios. They even went so far as to order two podiums, but never got around to building out the rest of the mock debate set because they never got around to using it. Plus, Ramaswamy tells me, he doesn’t want to be too “stiff” when he goes on the debate stage for the first time. Instead, on Monday, he posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that he had prepped by playing tennis. “Three hours of solid debate prep this morning.”

“I want to become careful about not becoming stultified,” Ramaswamy tells me. “I think that’s probably like my biggest risk. It has risks in both directions, but I think it’s going to be perfectly fine. To tell you the truth, everyone else on that debate stage has done multiple debates. I’ve never done it. And so I’m perfectly prepared for it to take a couple of cycles.”

There are two people Ramaswamy credits with his early conservative bent. But both figures may reveal just as much about why he’s so eager to speak to anyone who will listen — and how his attention-grabbing takes might come more from a desire to be contrarian rather than from deeply held beliefs.

The first foundational figure is his father, V. Ganapathy Ramaswamy, who emigrated from Kerala, India, to the U.S. after graduating from the National Institute of Technology Calicut. Vivek’s mother was a psychiatrist for older adults, and his father worked as an engineer at GE in Ohio in the 1980s and 1990s, a period notorious for then-CEO Jack Welch’s decision to downsize the company’s workforce. His dad wanted to keep his job amidst rampant layoffs, so he enrolled in law school across the river at Northern Kentucky University to become a patent attorney in hopes of securing his position at the company. It worked.

Ramaswamy would often accompany his father on his way to class and now jokes that he attended law school twice: Once with his father and later as an adult himself at Yale Law School, where he simultaneously worked at a hedge fund called QVT Financial LP. (He made partner at the hedge fund by 28.) On the way back from his dad’s law school classes, a young and precocious Ramaswamy often got into political arguments with his progressive father about what Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia had said in any given case. But the young Vivek’s takes came less out of conviction, he has said, and more out of the simple desire to be rebellious. “The teenager in me would take the other side of my dad,” Ramaswamy says. “He also turned me into a conservative in awakening the contrarian instincts of a teenager.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, he also credits Welch with turning him into a conservative. “Jack Welch, though many chains down the GE corporate hierarchy, dealt hardship to my family and to my dad,” he says. “But my dad’s choice was not to be victimized by it.”

The second person in his political origin story is his Reagan-loving piano teacher. (Like Buttigieg, Ramaswamy is a skilled musician — he doesn’t just rap Eminem; he plays Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” on Richard Nixon’s old piano.) When Hillary or Bill Clinton made news, and Ramaswamy hadn’t practiced, he would attempt to distract his piano teacher by bringing up the controversy of the day. Don’t think I don’t see through your trick, he recalls her telling him. I know what you’re doing. Eventually, she gave him a Reagan biography. He read it, and it clearly left a mark. A few months back he posted on LinkedIn: “20 years later, I’m playing her favorite piece at a house party in New Hampshire after giving a speech about how we’ll revive Reagan’s spirit. I wish she were here!”

Decades later, you sometimes sense that Ramaswamy is still back in the car with his father, taking the contrarian position. Or that he’s tweaking voters or a left-wing host just to distract them, as he did his piano teacher. For a go-everywhere, media blitz strategy to work, a candidate can’t just show up and talk, he or she has to say provocative or extreme things too. Otherwise, the interviews dry up and the bookers stop calling. Buttigieg pulled that off by discussing packing the Supreme Court and likening James Joyce’s work to stormwater drainage. (Buttigieg’s 2020 bid “convinced me that I could” run for president, Ramaswamy tells me.)

Ramaswamy certainly says things that are provocative. He wants to raise the voting age to 25, for example. (He himself did not vote between 2004 and 2020.) He calls affirmative action “the single biggest form of institutionalized racism in America today.” He thinks parts of Ukraine should go to Vladimir Putin.

He also directly verges into conspiratorial territory. In my interviews, he said “it is ludicrous to say that the government and the 9/11 Commission told the whole truth” about the events leading up to the fall of the towers. He frequently talks about the idea of the “noble lie,” a concept that the government isn’t being fully honest with the American public in order to ensure the nation’s greater good.

I ask him for an example.

“How many federal agents were in the field on Jan. 6,” Vivek tells me. “Jeffrey Epstein’s client list. What the government knew about UFOs.” (Ramaswamy has received $13,200 from Eva and Glenn Dubin. Eva is a former Epstein girlfriend and was a defense witness for Ghislaine Maxwell at her trial; spokespersons for his Super PAC and campaign didn’t immediately comment.)

As I shadowed Ramaswamy, Mike Pence went on the attack, saying he was “deeply offended” by Ramaswamy’s 9/11 comments. I shared his statement with Ramaswamy, and he let loose on the government and what he called the “establishment.”

“They’ll lie in the public about Pat Tillman, they’ll lie to the public about weapons of mass destruction,” he tells me. “So the same people who lied about Pat Tillman, who lied about the weapons of mass destruction, who lied to us today about the truth about how many police officers were in the field on January 6, who lied to us about the Nashville shooter manifesto, who lied to us about the origin of Covid-19, now say it is offensive to tell the truth about whether [Omar al-] Bayoumi was actually a Saudi intelligence operative. That is what’s offensive and shameful. And that problem is bigger than Mike Pence. He’s just one among the thousands constituting that establishment.”

Interestingly, back in 2022 he wasn’t buying into one popular conspiracy theory. In a POLITICO Magazine op-ed, he wrote that “[t]he worst victimhood narrative that afflicts modern conservatives is their budding belief that any election they lose must have been stolen.” But he has also more recently sidestepped questions about whether he would have tried to stop Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results.

Partially thanks to these provocations, Ramaswamy has attracted the interest and support of tech-friendly CEOs with a libertarian bent. He is Blake Masters with charisma. “[A] very promising candidate,” X’s Elon Musk posted.

“He’s a sort of a Music Man,” Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s former health secretary told the New York Times of Ramaswamy, comparing him to another figure who had success rounding up supporters in Iowa. Ramaswamy told me he hadn’t seen the musical (which is about a con man/band leader), but chalked it up as a Democratic attack, leaving aside the fact that Sebelius had previously advised two of his companies.

But this willingness to push boundaries, Ramaswamy says, is his secret superpower. When I asked him how he’d managed to become so successful at such a young age, he summed it up with a simple answer. “I think it’s being super-contrarian, actually.”

Later in the evening, as he records a soft-focus TV interview with ABC’s Linsey Davis for a segment called “Running Mate” in his backyard, Ramaswamy’s neighbor’s lawn mower gets too loud for the production crew’s liking. Someone is quickly dispatched to explain to them the predicament. The mower’s buzz stops, and the interview continues.

“We have some incredibly nice neighbors,” his wife Apoorva Ramaswamy, a head and neck surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells me.

At one point during the ABC interview, Davis pointed out that Ramaswamy had lint at the front of his shock of dark brown hair. Ramaswamy looked at me again and asked me to remove it. I had never touched a presidential candidate’s hair before and didn’t particularly feel an urgent need to. But the next thing I knew, my thumb and forefinger were gliding up one of his coarse locks, pinching off a speck of something. Ramaswamy, I learned for the second time today, can be persuasive.

After taping, as the crew loads their equipment into a van, Ramaswamy holds his 13-month-old son Arjun and invites me along for a walk-and-talk in his backyard.

Where is all this leading, I ask him. While not all of his media appearances have been entirely friendly, Wednesday night’s debate is likely to be his first real experience of having to fend off attacks in real-time during his presidential run.

“I don’t think my first debate performance will be my best,” he says. “I don’t think Trump’s was his best. I think everybody on the debate stage has more experience than I do in political debates, both in primaries and in generals, and it will take a little time for me to ease into it.”

And sure, he’s now averaging third and sometimes even placing second in some of the polls. As POLITICO has reported, Ramaswamy has tended to do better on online surveys as opposed to those by telephone — dividends, perhaps, of his relentless efforts to appear on podcasts popular with the same very online crowd who knows who Jordan Peterson is. But what state can he actually win? And what’s the path after that?

“I increasingly think there’s a chance I could win Iowa, actually,” Ramaswamy says. “So we’ll start with that one first. The top three in Iowa are what we need. If I can win Iowa, I can win any state.” (A survey released Monday by the firm many consider to be Iowa’s best pollster had Ramaswamy at 4 percent — 7th among candidates and one point below “Not sure.”)

He said the campaign isn’t prioritizing South Carolina. But momentum in the first two states could help him there, he tells me.

As for DeSantis, who has been instructed to take a “sledgehammer” to him? “One of the things in businesses: When a business is overcapitalized, like it has too much capital relative to actually being proven, they make worse decisions with the money,” he says of the campaign that, at the moment, is the last big obstacle — at least in a few states — between him and the race’s leader, Trump.

After he puts his son to bed, I ride with him back to his campaign headquarters for his last hit of the night. He’d been booked for two primetime cable news hits — one with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and another with Fox’s Jesse Waters — but both canceled on him.

“What happened?” Ramaswamy asks McLaughlin.

“I texted Kaitlan, and I was like, ‘What’s the deal?’ We canceled things for this,” McLaughlin says. “And she didn’t text me.”

But the consolation prize was a hit with Laura Ingraham later in the evening on Fox.

In his studio, I wait around the corner of a fake wall while he prepares. His AV guy sets up the shot and then briefly disappears. After a few beats, Ramaswamy grows frustrated with his absence. He’s talking to the producers now.

“Can you hear me,” he asks with urgency. “Can you hear me?”

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