JD Vance is the Republican Senate candidate for Ohio, and is currently polling narrowly ahead of the Democratic candidate, Tim Ryan. While Vance is still expected to win, that the race is this close in a midterm election year in Ohio, which former US President Donald Trump won in 2016 and 2020, speaks to his limitations as a candidate. This piece, published before the Republican Senate primary, is about why he is such a poor politician — and why he might win anyway.
Every politician is a performer. They find a crowd they can work and then they try to work it. Every campaign is, to an extent, a performance, and there are elements of authenticity and inauthenticity in each one.
I start with this because my point here is not that JD Vance, who is running for the Republican nomination to contest a Senate seat in Ohio, is trying to pass himself off as an everyman when in fact he is a venture capitalist backed by the billionaire Peter Thiel. My point is not that Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, to which readers flocked after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, trying to figure out what about Real America they had overlooked, is Vance’s own telling of his own story, and not necessarily effective policy for Ohio. (Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s memoir, in which he describes growing up in Ohio; it also doubles as the Yale law school’s go-to meditation on the struggles of the white working class.)
My point is not that I would not vote for Vance. My point is not that Vance, who once spoke out against Trump, should know better than to try to cover himself in “Make America Great Again” glory, or accept the endorsement of the far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. No, my point is not that Vance is putting on a performance, but rather that the performance is so wholly unconvincing.
[See also: The Republican ‘red wave’ has turned into a ripple]
There have been some lightly mocked moments. “Want to have dinner with me and Peter Thiel? Donate $10,800 by tomorrow and I’ll send you the details”, he tweeted in November.
“For $10.80 anyone can join me eating fries off the hood of the car from a gas station Denny’s at midnight,” tweeted his political rival, the former Ohio treasurer and longtime Trump booster Josh Mandel, in response.
There are the ads. “Are you a racist?” he asked in one recent one, pointing awkwardly at the camera. “Do you hate Mexicans?” Even if one could leave aside the fact that the rest of the ad blames immigration from Mexico for his mother’s drug addiction, is he expecting racists to self-identify as racist?
There is the studied familiarity that only ends up revealing the distance between himself and his would-be voters. “I have a buddy in France, and they just had an election there. Polls closed a few hours ago and they already know who the winners are. Must be nice to live in a first world country,” he tweeted on the night of the first round of the French presidential election. Again, even leaving aside reality, which is that Republicans across the country have blocked measures that would allow for more early voting and counting of those votes, or that a simple majority in US presidential elections would favour Democrats — who is this for? Who are the voters in the Ohio primary who are going to follow the candidate who wants to make America more like France?
Vance gained national fame by positioning himself as a person who could speak to rural America, but as this race goes on he only seems further away from the very people to whom he is trying to appeal. Theoretically, he could still pull off an upset in the 3 May Republican primary. Some polling suggests he’s on the upswing (though admittedly that polling led his two main rivals to put aside their differences to bash Vance). Trump, with his typical self-aggrandising fanfare, endorsed Vance, and that alone could be enough to bring him successfully across the finish line. But even with his nationally known name, at time of writing, he’s currently polling toward the end of the pack, behind Mandel and the millionaire investment banker Mike Gibbons.
Every politician is a performer. Some just aren’t good at either politics or performance.