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Why DeSantis Has Been Stoking the Anti-Woke Hard Right
Trump has fundamentally changed the GOP, leaving no clear path for moderate and measured presidential candidates
One of the biggest stories of the presidential primaries has been the failure of Ron DeSantis to gain traction against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. For political junkies and many on the anti-Trump right, it’s been a surprise.
Just last November, DeSantis steamrolled his way to a dominating 19-point re-election as governor in the purple state of Florida; in contrast, some of Trump’s highest-profile congressional endorsements went up in flames. By Jan. 21, the former president’s once-imposing lead over DeSantis in the RealClearPolitics polling average for the Republican presidential nomination had fallen from 33 points (53%-19%) on Oct. 31 to just 13 points (44%-31%)—and DeSantis was still four months away from announcing his candidacy.
Yet Trump’s lead now stands at 39 points (54%-15%). DeSantis has fired campaign staff, announced a new communications strategy and replaced his campaign manager. Critics of his political approach are in full cry. As National Review’s Jim Geraghty put it, echoing others, “DeSantis is rapidly alienating the voters most open to considering him as a Trump alternative by relentlessly chasing and courting the voters most loyal to Trump.”
There’s evidence for Geraghty’s argument. DeSantis’ campaign has produced lurid videos on education policy and on Trump’s purported LGBTQ+ sympathies, while DeSantis has threatened to sue Anheuser-Busch over its Dylan Mulvaney advertising and to “sic” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the FDA and CDC if he’s elected president. Whatever the political triangulation in these decisions, it’s primarily between audiences on the right, where even Kennedy, a Democratic candidate, is viewed more favorably than he is on the left. DeSantis’ culture-war salvos aren’t pitched to more moderate voters who might be searching for an alternative to Trump.
Still, the criticisms of DeSantis often misunderstand the obstacles he’s faced in winning the primary given changes in the Republican voting base in recent years—shifts that don’t vindicate his approach but do make his political calculation explicable. More importantly, his failure so far helps us see the party as it currently is, rather than as what many wish it were. This is essential to recognizing the challenges that the GOP’s Trumpian populism poses to national governance and liberal democratic norms in the years to come.
Recognizing the difficulties faced by DeSantis and the other Republican presidential candidates starts with Trump’s obvious and considerable advantages: his prominence as a former president, his established fundraising machine, and his well-honed ability to put on a show that entertains his followers and draws the media like a magnet. His legal difficulties have caused many Republican voters to rally around him, rather than abandon him. Indeed, Trump’s polling decline vis-á-vis DeSantis reversed immediately after a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Trump on March 30. Even following Trump’s indictment on federal charges of mishandling classified documents, a CNN poll found that only 12% of Republican registered voters wanted other Republican candidates to “publicly condemn Trump’s actions in this case,” while 42% wanted them to “publicly condemn the government’s prosecution,” and 45% wanted them to “not take a stand … either way.” These dynamics make Trump a formidable opponent in any Republican primary.
So where does a Republican challenger like DeSantis find enough Republican supporters to wrest Trump’s lead away?
Strangely, he might look right. On May 24, the day DeSantis announced his candidacy, Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini at Echelon Insights wrote about the volatility of GOP voters who described themselves as “very conservative,” observing that in recent months, “It’s been the very conservative, representing 35 to 40% of the party, voters who’ve swung most dramatically in Trump’s direction. They also swung strongly [in] DeSantis’s following Trump’s [October 2022] midterm debacle,” when high-profile candidates whom Trump endorsed lost key races, curbing expected Republican gains in Congress. As Ruffini observed, these very conservative Republicans’ “volatility in the race so far makes them a juicy target for both [Trump’s and DeSantis’] camps,” since their history showed big gains were possible for both candidates. Moreover, in contrast to the strengths of Republicans like Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, “DeSantis’s calling card,” Ruffini wrote, “was always his ability to also appeal to the hardcore conservative Trump base,” which still viewed him favorably.
Of course, some 55 to 60% of the party did not see themselves as “very conservative,” but Ruffini’s data showed that Trump led among those other voters, too. Dispatch Senior Editor Sarah Isgur—hardly a MAGA devotee, having formerly worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and served as campaign manager for Carly Fiorina’s 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign—wrote in her reflections on Ruffini’s findings, “I’ve been saying for a long time that there is no path to the Republican nomination with only voters who don’t like Donald Trump.”
Indeed, while it’s tempting to think someone challenging Trump should present themselves as quite distinct from him, a June CBS poll found that if Trump were not the Republican nominee, 74% of likely GOP primary voters wanted the Republican nominee to be either very or somewhat “similar to Donald Trump.” And while it’s also tempting to home in on moderate and liberal Republicans who don’t have MAGA sympathies, an America’s Political Pulse survey fielded just before DeSantis entered the race indicated that Republicans who described themselves as neither MAGA Republicans nor conservatives represented about 21% of the party—not in itself a sufficient base for victory.
A Party Six-Pack
Analyzing voters by their political ideology, such as “conservative” or “liberal,” can yield useful knowledge in a campaign, but it may not be as helpful tactically in deciding which issues to campaign on. Labels like “very conservative” come from survey respondents themselves, and the views of the people in these self-selected groups can diverge considerably on specific issues, especially in the Republican party, which has been transitioning from a Reaganite conservatism to a Trumpian one.
Ruffini thus offered a more granular analysis, based more directly on prospective voters’ policy concerns, of what he calls “the six Republican parties.” This analysis arose from survey research in late April of likely Republican voters and their media consumption, social media use and views on 15 political issues of frequent Republican concern, such as illegal immigration, election fraud, “soft-on-crime” prosecutors, economic competition from China, and “wokeness” in schools, colleges and corporations. Machine learning was used to detect and define the party’s six divides.
Interestingly, DeSantis led in exactly one of the six: the so-called “Anti-Woke,” which constituted 13% of the party. This group of likely voters expressed notably more concern about wokeness than other issues; election fraud, for instance, didn’t particularly worry them. These were a fairly even mix of very conservative, somewhat conservative and moderate/liberal voters, and they were the only group of the six where a majority (60%) were college graduates. A bare majority (51%) were women; the group also had the highest rates of nonwhite voters (31%) and Twitter users (43%). They were clearly a DeSantis base: He led Trump 45% to 13% in the full Republican ballot and 50% to 32% head-to-head. Given those findings, his campaign launch on Twitter and his relentlessly anti-woke messages are easier to understand; DeSantis can’t afford to lose those voters.
Two other groups might seem promising ground for DeSantis: the so-called “MAGA Moderates” and the “Borderline Republicans,” which together represented 30% of the party (21% and 9%, respectively). These were the other two groups that were majority female (63% and 65%, respectively), and together, they were more than double the size of the “Anti-Woke” bloc.
But they had the lowest level of concerns about the issues, were the least college-educated of the six groups (74% and 72% non-college, respectively), and were considering the fewest number of candidates—less than two on average, with Trump the clear favorite. This was problematic, because, as Ruffini noted, their responses suggested they weren’t very engaged voters and weren’t following the campaign closely. Like many people early in an election cycle, they “likely [hadn’t] taken much time to learn about any of the Trump alternatives,” but, he observed, “once a clear frontrunner emerges, they’ll fall in line with the rest of the party.” This suggested Trump’s competitors would better spend their efforts elsewhere and aim to pick up these voters later, on the fly. Winning presidential primaries typically starts with persuading the activists first.
Another apparently promising group was the “Conservative Traditionalists”: Sixty-eight percent said they were considering DeSantis, and they were generally very concerned about all of the 15 hot-button issues except cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In this sense, they looked more like old-school conservatives, though perhaps with heightened cultural concerns about the left. They were considering nearly four candidates on average—more than any of the six groups—and therefore very much in play. But given that they represented just 6% of the party, angling for them specifically wasn’t a high-yield proposition.
This left only two groups that might produce a richer return on investment: what Ruffini called the “Ultra-Concerned” and the “Merely Very Concerned.” Together, they accounted for 52% of Republicans—32% and 20%, respectively.
The Ultra-Concerned expressed very high levels of concern about nearly all of the 15 issues and had the highest viewership rates of conservative media like Fox News and Newsmax, indicating they would track the primary election closely. They also had the highest percentage of voters considering DeSantis (69%), and they had the highest percentage of very conservative voters (63%), suggesting, per the findings cited earlier on the volatility of very conservative voters, that they could potentially swing hard against Trump and for DeSantis. Representing a third of the Republican Party, they appeared to be a promising and logical target for DeSantis.
Of course, DeSantis could also turn his attention to the “Merely Very Concerned”—a possibility Isgur raised. Unlike the Ultra-Concerned, a majority of this group (51%) described themselves as “somewhat conservative,” but this bloc still had the second-highest percentage of very conservative voters (41%), and nearly as many of them (65%) were considering DeSantis as Trump (69%). Though they weren’t quite as worried about the 15 issues as the Ultra-Concerned, their concern was still high, and they were relatively interested in conservative media. This suggested they were reasonably engaged and reachable voters. They were also generally younger than the Ultra-Concerned, like DeSantis’ Anti-Woke stronghold.
Not Your Father’s GOP
Ultimately, the Ultra-Concerned and the Merely Very Concerned were plausible targets for DeSantis, and it’s worth noting that among the 15 issues tested, “wokeness in schools” registered the highest level of concern for both groups. In fact, all three wokeness issues—wokeness in schools, wokeness on college campuses, and wokeness in corporations—ranked among the top four issues of concern for both sets of voters—higher than, say, China’s security threats or cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Given DeSantis’ “Anti-Woke” base and his record on “wokeness” as Florida’s governor, it’s not surprising that he pushed the issues and tried to show himself as even more “anti-woke” than Trump. And while these efforts risked making him less appealing to the moderate voters he’d need in the general election, he couldn’t contest that election unless he won the primary first—a goal that pointed toward these three groups, who represented nearly two-thirds of Republican voters.
This wasn’t DeSantis’ only dilemma. Sarah Longwell, a political strategist, prominent Never-Trumper and publisher of The Bulwark, penned a lament in April based on “hundreds of focus groups with GOP voters over the last four years.” Her findings led her to conclude, “The Republican Party has been irretrievably altered” by its encounter with Donald Trump, “and, as one GOP voter put it succinctly, ‘We’re never going back.’”
In this new edition of the party, the pre-Trump Republican “establishment” has been widely repudiated. “And what is DeSantis’s big weakness in his looming primary fight?” she wrote.
It’s his BT [“Before Trump”] political career. Because before he became Trump’s handpicked governor, DeSantis was a normie mid-2010s Republican: He had Tea Party credentials. He was hawkish on Russia. He was a founding father of the House Freedom Caucus. And like all good Ryan-era conservatives, he wanted to privatize Social Security as a means to save our unsustainable entitlement system.
There are early signs that these attacks are working. You can see it in DeSantis’s declining poll numbers. But I hear it in the focus groups, too. Voters I talked to recently say they’re “a little concerned” about DeSantis “because he’s still establishment,” and that “he seems like more of an open-borders, Paul Ryan kind of guy.” Others called him “more of a politician than Trump is” and said, “He is very much one of those political, swampy guys.”
Consider this when you ponder DeSantis ads that seemed unnecessarily extreme. For all of DeSantis’ anti-establishment actions on COVID lockdowns, immigrants, corporate wokeness and “critical race theory,” and for all his past support of Trump and Trumpism, he’s been struggling to reach voters—many of whom he probably needs—who still suspect he’s not all-in against “The Swamp.”
Of Policy and Personality
This doesn’t mean DeSantis and his campaign haven’t been inept or misguided; rather, it means they haven’t been playing an easy hand. Most likely, they’ve independently seen polling data like Ruffini’s and focus groups like Longwell’s—and in fact, the campaign we’ve observed to date strongly suggests they have.
DeSantis’ campaign tactics thus provide yet further evidence that a significant, influential segment of the Republican Party’s base is deeply suspicious of the “establishment”—including the Republican establishment—and that these voters are acutely triggered by disputes over perceived establishment values like “wokism.” This makes political compromise over those values unappealing and the political power to root out those values more appealing. It’s a volatile mix, and it could well remain that way, even if a volatile Donald Trump is not the Republican standard-bearer in 2024.
DeSantis’ failures also indicate something telling. DeSantis has been accused of trying to sell Trump Lite. It would be more accurate to say he’s been trying to sell MAGA Heavy. He has, in other words, emphasized policy passions over personality. The inadequacy of DeSantis’ MAGA ’roid rage and his campaign’s massed assault on Trump’s main political forces indicates that Trump’s populist movement is about more than policy.
Rather, as The UnPopulist has suggested from the beginning, something deeper and more problematic appears to be at work—something more like the populist dynamic described as the academic literature. This literature describes not just anti-establishment sentiments, but populist supporters who so deeply identify with a populist leader that they start to set aside other values in pursuit of that leader’s success. In a liberal democracy, this can upend liberal democratic norms and threaten liberal democracy itself.
This strong personal identification makes Trump necessary to Trumpian populism. Slipping in a substitute is like drawing to an inside straight.
There is still time for someone to emerge from the pack and beat Trump in the primary, but that candidate’s approach will likely have to be disruptive of the populist dynamic apparently in place. This disruption could occur as it does in business environments, with a candidate bypassing Trump, the current market leader, by discovering a method of reaching and motivating less-connected voters like the MAGA Moderates and Borderline Republicans independent of the influence of plugged-in voters like the Ultra-Concerned. Past experience suggests this is unlikely, but disruptive entrepreneurship always is.
More directly, a candidate may find a way of weakening or breaking the powerful self-identification between Trump and his core supporters by lessening him in their eyes and reducing the appeal of identifying with him. This might arise exogenously, with a key issue emerging in which Trump appears hopelessly inadequate or irrelevant; more likely, it could happen if Trump is publicly out-bullied or humiliated, with a candidate in a debate landing a knockout blow in response to one of Trump’s personal attacks.
But trying simply to replace Trump in the Trumpian populist dynamic appears to misunderstand that dynamic. Just ask Ron DeSantis.
© The UnPopulist 2023