ATLANTA (AP) — A political novice and one of the world’s wealthiest millennials, Vivek Ramaswamy has waged a whirlwind presidential campaign mirroring his meteoric rise as a biotech entrepreneur. On everything from deporting people born in the United States to ending aid to Israel and Ukraine, he consistently displays the bravado of a populist, self-declared outsider.
“I stand on the side of revolution,” he declares. “That’s what I’m going to lead in a way that no establishment politician can.”
In business and politics, though, Ramaswamy has run into skeptics and sometimes hard facts that threatened to derail his ambitions. In the 2024 campaign, the Israel-Hamas war has refocused the Republican primary on foreign policy and exposed just how much Ramaswamy’s self-declared revolutionary approach puts him at odds with the party’s most powerful figures and many of its voters.
At Wednesday’s primary debate, Ramaswamy joined the rest of the field in supporting Israel’s offensive but returned to his practice of not just critiquing his opponents but mocking them. Ramaswamy skewered Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who some online sleuths suggest wears lifts in his boots, by asking, “Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?”
The performance drew eye rolls and derision on stage. When Ramaswamy implied Haley was being hypocritical in criticizing the social media platform TikTok because her daughter has previously used it, the 51-year-old mother of two called him “scum.”
Ramaswamy, an Ohio native who also lives there, has wowed many audiences with his rapid-fire, wide-ranging discourse. Yet even some Republican voters who come away impressed are not backing him. He’s among a group of candidates who trail former President Donald Trump and generally fall behind DeSantis in national surveys, polling in the mid to high single digits.
Ann Trimble Ray, a Republican activist from Early, Iowa, suggested Ramaswamy “exposes his naivete in part with what he’s said about Israel, but also his inexperience.”
“Unless you’ve had the experience of someone who has had exposure to the briefings, what you communicate is a whole lot of conjecture,” said Ray, who is leaning toward backing Haley.
The 38-year-old son of Indian immigrants has spent his adult life as a sort of boastful savior. In business, that meant building a fortune by hyping a drug that ultimately failed. In politics, it means arguing he can return Trump’s “America First” vision to the White House without the baggage.
Ramaswamy set his course at Harvard, a pillar of the American establishment. Ramaswamy majored in biology and participated in the campus Republican club, standing out even there as a libertarian. He drew attention from the campus newspaper for his alter ego, “Da Vek,” a rapper who performed using libertarian ideology as lyrics.
“I consider myself a contrarian; I like to argue,” Ramaswamy told The Crimson.
Harvard introduced Ramaswamy to the hedge-fund class. He interned at Goldman Sachs, the most prestigious Wall Street investment house, then won a job at QVT Financial, founded by another Harvard alumnus, Dan Gold. Ramaswamy led the firm’s pharmaceutical investments.
Ramaswamy launched his own venture in 2014. He named it Roivant — the ROI standing for “return on investment” — and had a clear business model in mind: Buy discount patents for drugs languishing in the development phase, then resurrect them.
In his first big move, Ramaswamy used a subsidiary, Axovant, and paid GlaxoSmithKline $5 million for RVT-101, a potential Alzheimer’s drug already put through multiple trials and deemed not promising enough to continue. Ramaswamy rebranded it as “intepirdine” and, despite the earlier studies, touted it as a game-changer, a “best-in-class drug candidate,” he told The New York Times during Axovant’s infancy. He landed on the cover of Forbes magazine.
The hype worked. Intepirdine never would.
Axovant’s initial public stock offering in 2015 drew $315 million, the largest-ever biotech IPO to that point, and Axovant’s valuation approached $3 billion. In 2017, Axovant released more trial results that found the drug ineffective at dampening Alzheimer’s symptoms or its advancement. Axovant stock tanked.
Ramaswamy, though, had pocketed tens of millions, divesting himself of shares whose value had swelled because of public buy-in.
“He pumped up the image and the name so people invested, while he was selling out,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a scholar at the Yale School of Management who tracks Ramaswamy’s business dealings. “That’s classic ‘pump and dump.’”
On his 2015 tax return, one of 20 years’ worth he has disclosed, Ramaswamy reported almost $38 million in capital gains income. He parlayed that into a portfolio now measured in the hundreds of millions, enough to dwarf the $15 million he has loaned his own campaign.
He became a conservative author and cable news regular, mainly as a critic of corporate America’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. In that role, and as a candidate, Ramaswamy sidesteps that some of his own interests — he invested in Disney, a punching bag for conservatives — are leaders in DEI efforts.
Ramaswamy embraces the notion that he is Donald Trump 2.0.
“I believe Donald Trump was an excellent president,” Ramaswamy said while campaigning in Atlanta. “But I do believe that we need to take our America First agenda to the next level, and I think it will take an outsider from a different generation with an actual positive vision.”
Ramaswamy has promised to pardon the former president if he is convicted of federal crimes, including those related to the Capitol Hill attack in 2021. In one of his earlier books, Ramaswamy called Jan. 6 “a dark day for democracy” and criticized Trump’s “abhorrent” behavior — assessments he no longer repeats.
Ramaswamy advocates deporting the American-born children of immigrants in the country illegally, though they are U.S. citizens under federal law and Supreme Court precedent. He questions the government’s account of 9/11. He’s called for firing 75% of the federal workforce. He wants to raise the U.S. voting age.
Two days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack killed 1,400 people, Ramaswamy suggested the U.S. withhold aid to Israel until its government detailed plans for Gaza.
While many conservatives dislike foreign aid, Republican voters align heavily with Israel.
About 4 in 10 Republicans (44%) say the United States’ current level of support for Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians is about right, according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research poll conducted in November. Another one-third of Republicans (34%) say the U.S. isn’t supportive enough, compared with 9% of Democrats who say the same.
During Wednesday’s debate, Ramaswamy endorsed Israel’s right to counterattack Hamas but said Americans should not have a financial stake in the war. He chided his opponents for framing U.S. aid to Ukraine as a fight for democracy against Russian aggression.
“I want to be careful to avoid making the mistakes from the neocon establishment of the past. Corrupt politicians in both parties spent trillions, killed millions,” he said. “Made billions for themselves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting wars that sent thousands of our sons and daughters, people my age, to die in wars that did not advance everyone’s interests, adding $7 trillion to our national debt.”
Ramaswamy jousted recently with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson over Ramaswamy’s accusations of systemic corruption in the U.S. establishment.
When Sean Hannity, the hugely influential Fox News personality, challenged Ramaswamy after his interview with Carlson, the candidate insisted he was mischaracterized. Retorted Hannity: “You do this in every single interview. You say stuff but then you deny it, your own words.”
Trump’s critics accuse him of doing that as well. The former president also got in trouble with top Republicans for denigrating Israel’s prime minister after the Hamas attack. Yet Trump remains such an overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination that he has skipped each debate, leaving Ramaswamy to absorb punches most candidates never direct toward the former president.
“I am telling you, Putin and President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president,” Haley retorted Wednesday, saying the Russian and Chinese leaders “would love” his isolationism.
Ramaswamy showed his core strategy earlier this year in a brief huddle with a 16-year-old who asked for advice. “Find where the pack is going and then figure out what they missed,” Ramaswamy told him. “You have to buck the consensus.”
But he added a bottom line: “You have to be right.”
Associated Press writers Linley Sanders in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.