Ron DeSantis Went Down With The Anti-Woke Ship

As GOP voters seem increasingly “meh” on culture war rhetoric, it’s bad news for the politician who has most publicly positioned himself as an anti-woke warrior.

“Florida is where woke goes to die,” Gov. Ron DeSantis declared at a victory speech in November 2022, just after winning his second term as governor of Florida. He’d just had a decisive win in an election that wasn’t otherwise particularly good for Republicans across the country, and he’d done it by promoting himself as an anti-woke warrior.

It wasn’t his official presidential campaign announcement, but it was still a pitch to voters nationwide: I’m the candidate who can defeat the creeping specter of wokeness infecting schools, workplaces, and our culture as a whole.

But one year after that victory speech that unofficially anointed him as a formidable opponent to Donald Trump, he’s polling in a far distant second place to the former president, and he’s been unable to take his anti-woke message nationwide. What happened?

Is DeSantis a bad messenger, is his anti-wokeness message just not resonating with GOP voters — or is the grip Trump has on the Republican electorate just too strong?

“It’s a little bit of all the above,” Alex Conant, a GOP consultant for Firehouse Strategies, a public affairs firm, told HuffPost.

Originally, “woke” was a term in African American Vernacular English meaning to stay alert to racial discrimination. But soon after the racial justice protests swept the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, conservative pundits co-opted the term to derogatorily refer to anything related to progressivism, equality or diversity.

Companies that put out statements in support of diversity initiatives or changed their racist logos, educators who wanted to teach accurate U.S. history, and celebrities who spoke out against discrimination were swiftly deemed “woke” ― and something conservatives everywhere should fear.

In contrast, in Florida and across the country, being anti-woke meant introducing bills that target LGBTQ+ students, diversity initiatives in the workplace, and what books children had access to at school. Any candidate promising to bring those ideas to the national stage, the thinking went, would be a strong Republican contender for the White House.

And perhaps no public figure has invested as much in the concept, or hitched their wagon to it as publicly as DeSantis.

“The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism. At the end of the day, it’s an attack on the truth,” DeSantis said during a Fox News interview shortly after announcing he was running for president. “And because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke.”

The following week he went to Iowa and promised to take on wokeness as president. “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress,” he said.

But complaining about wokeness and stoking the culture wars has turned out to be a losing bet in elections across the country.

In the November 2022 election, candidates that focused on culture wars failed to win key races across the country, with losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. Then last month, school board candidates who ran on combating wokeness in schools were unsuccessful.

It’s looking increasingly clear that Republicans overestimated how much GOP voters were invested in fighting wokeness. With just weeks to go before the first ballots are cast, a November poll out of Iowa shows that DeSantis is tied for second place with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, at just 16%.

Trump seemed to pick up on the weakness of anti-wokeness branding before DeSantis. “I don’t like the term ‘woke’ because I hear, ‘Woke, woke, woke.’ It’s just a term they use, half the people can’t even define it, they don’t know what it is,” he said at an Iowa event in June.

Conant says Trump is correct. “A lot of voters don’t know what woke is,” he said. “Republicans struggle to define it.”

“Fundamentally, a lot of Republicans are troubled by activist politicians on the right and the left, and they don’t want to see the government penalizing companies,” Conant said.

“The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism. At the end of the day, it’s an attack on the truth,” Ron DeSantis said. “And because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke.”
“The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism. At the end of the day, it’s an attack on the truth,” Ron DeSantis said. “And because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke.”
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

As part of showing how strong he was on fighting wokeness, DeSantis famously went after Disney after the company criticized Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which restricts what educators can say about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. In turn, DeSantis revoked the Disney district’s special tax status and appointed a new board to oversee the district. The megacorporation sued the state, alleging the government was infringing on its First Amendment right.

“I think they crossed the line,” DeSantis said about Disney’s criticism of the law in March. “We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids.”

But by August, DeSantis appeared to be defeated. It turns out that even though DeSantis had filled the board with members who were loyal to him, the old board had passed a policy that made the new members effectively powerless.

“We’ve basically moved on,” DeSantis said on CNBC. “They’re suing the state of Florida, they’re going to lose that lawsuit. So what I would say is, drop the lawsuit.”

Despite railing against woke companies and politicians, according to Ron Bonjean, a former Republican spokesman and the co-founder of PR firm ROKK Solutions, traditional conservatives don’t like when the government interferes with businesses.

“Seventy percent of polled Republicans are against elected officials going after companies and punishing them,” Bonjean said about his polling. “They want the government to stay out of the marketplace.”

And further polling shows that GOP voters are just not interested in the anti-woke culture wars — at least not enough to rally behind the most anti-woke candidate.

A July 2023 New York Times/Siena College poll found that only 24% of respondents wanted a candidate that would focus on defeating woke ideology.

“It’s immigration, national security, the economy, those are the issues that GOP voters care about the most,” Conant said. “But DeSantis spent most of the campaign talking about what he did in Tallahassee.”

And while campaigning against wokeness was a staple in DeSantis’ stump speeches early in his campaign, he slowly began pivoting. In a televised town hall with CNN this month, he didn’t utter the word once.

Not every political campaign expert believes that it’s simply a messaging problem.

“If you look at the kinds of things DeSantis is arguing against — progressive agendas pushed by school administration, the politics of corporations, DEI ― it’s something that he has articulated well and has a wide audience,” Daron Shaw, a political science professor and public opinion researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, told HuffPost.

But Shaw said DeSantis is just not an effective messenger. “Most conservatives would agree that woke politics have gone too far. But DeSantis isn’t the right messenger. He’s not a happy warrior.”

Trump’s supporters, for better or for worse, find him relatable and believe the former president is standing beside them. Meanwhile, DeSantis comes off as out of touch, like when he was unable to connect with a teenager describing his mental health struggles.

Others believe the media has a role to play. Initially, DeSantis sought only friendly media outlets, eschewing traditional television or print outlets that he likely believed would paint him in a bad light.

“He made a strategic mistake by not engaging in mainstream media,” Conant said. “He allowed his opponents to define him aloof, out of touch, and weird.”

For example, several clips of DeSantis struggling to smile have gone viral. He’s been accused of wearing high-heeled shoes to appear taller and made fun of for eating pudding with his fingers, and his candidacy has been dogged by allegations that he doesn’t know how to relate to voters.

“The Trump influencers and messengers behind the Make America Great Again movement post about DeSantis in high-heeled boots or getting his make-up done,” said David Capen, a North Carolina-based strategist. “They’re using these memes and little clips to make him look weak and insecure.”

And when you’re running against Trump, who is famous for delivering low-blow insults and is polling around 50 points ahead of DeSantis, the last thing you want is to look weak.

Even if DeSantis were polling better or if his message was resonating with voters nationwide and not just in Florida, he’d still have to contend with Trump — who has been the party’s standard bearer since his nomination in 2016.

“Everyone’s fundamental problem is Donald Trump,” Conant said. “He’s effectively the incumbent. You need to convince voters that he needs to be fired.”

And despite the numerous indictments and legal battles the former president is facing, it doesn’t appear to be holding him back. One Iowa strategist believes that DeSantis’ fledging campaign can’t be blamed on anti-wokeness being unpopular or DeSantis’ being too awkward for the national stage.

“It is all about Donald Trump’s popularity,” Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based strategist, told HuffPost. “Trump is the 500-pound gorilla in the [Iowa] caucus. I think there was a fundamental miscalculation that the Republican electorate was ready for something new.”

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