Ron DeSantis Is Doubling Down On His Education Crusade. Will It Work With GOP Voters In 2024?

Florida’s legislative session may have just gotten underway, but lawmakers there already have plenty to do. That’s, in part, because Republicans there have presented a flurry of bills that would transform K-12 and higher education in the state — from forcing state colleges and universities to shut down any diversity, equity and inclusion programs and eliminating college majors and minors in “critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality,” to boosting oversight of school libraries

The lawmaking session will be guided by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s priorities — but as he teases a run at the national level, DeSantis appears more focused on appealing to the broader, national GOP electorate than to the average Floridian. In fact, his continued attacks on so-called “woke” ideology — especially as it pertains to the public school system, which he’s previously said is “indoctrinating kids” — is one of the strongest signals that if DeSantis does run for president, he’ll seek the nomination by stoking some of the same cultural grievances that Republicans have stressed for years. 

This approach could work — at least in a GOP primary. After all, those messages helped enable former President Donald Trump’s ascent to power. But if DeSantis manages to actually clinch the nomination, his tactics could come at the price of repelling general election voters — especially suburbanites and independent voters.

First things first, though. If DeSantis wants to win the Republican nomination (assuming he does decide to throw his hat in the ring), his focus on race and education makes a lot of sense. That’s because GOP primary voters — particularly social conservatives — who have long lamented their supposed waning lack of clout in American society are likely to be quite receptive to these messages. Case in point: In a joint survey with FiveThirtyEight, the nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem found that support — or a lack thereof — for the Black Lives Matter movement was the No. 1 attitudinal predictor of 2022 vote choice and a number of policy positions. As Tresa Undem, co-founder of PerryUndem, told me, racial resentment is powerful and might land differently than, say, bills targeted toward LGBTQ students.

“Our data shows that views toward race and racial ideology are the biggest predictors of voting Republican. So any measures that address race explicitly are going to appeal to the vast majority of Republican voters,” Undem said. “It’s a mobilizing issue. There’s a great deal of racial resentment right now among Republicans, and that is mobilizing them in ways that other issues aren’t — or can’t.”

Other surveys suggest that Republicans are particularly less likely than the general public to support the discussion of various issues surrounding race in K-12 schools. A February Data for Progress poll, for instance, found that while just over half of likely voters (52 percent) believe the Black Lives Matter movement should be taught in an age-appropriate manner, the share of Republicans who support this was decidedly lower (26 percent). Republicans were also less likely than all likely voters (48 percent versus 69 percent, respectively) to support age-appropriate discussions of modern-day racism and racial equality in the classroom. Meanwhile, a February survey of Americans from YouGov/Economist found that about one-quarter of Republicans (23 percent) and voters who supported Trump in the 2020 election (25 percent) thought K-12 schools taught “too much” about the history of Black Americans. Only 14 percent of Americans — and 6 percent of Democrats — felt the same.

These data points might be one reason why Republicans appear confident that DeSantis’s focus on race in education can attract socially conservative voters in a GOP primary. During a phone call with me, Republican pollster Whit Ayres pointed to Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race — after he stressed “parental rights” in the classroom — as proof for GOP candidates and strategists that certain issues surrounding education have appeal.

“Savvy Republican presidential candidates have historically made good use of education issues,” Ayres said. “Good Republican candidates have seen the potential in education issues for many years.”

Notably, it’s not just DeSantis beating this drum. Though they’ve been stingy in their definitions of what exactly they consider critical race theory to be, former South Carolina Gov. and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who announced her presidential bid last month, recently tweeted that it was “un-American.” Trump, meanwhile, has been sounding the alarm on critical race theory in schools since at least 2020. But DeSantis has arguably acted most aggressively on education. Last year, he made waves after signing the controversial “Stop WOKE Act,” which regulates how race is taught in schools and workplaces in Florida. More recently, his administration blocked the teaching of an Advanced Placement African American Studies course for high school students throughout the state — saying that it “significantly lacks educational value” — and later threatened to sever ties with the College Board altogether.

DeSantis’s efforts to control what Florida students are taught seems to have found a receptive audience in other Republican-controlled states, too. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight identified at least five pieces of copycat bills across the U.S. related to race in education that have made it out of committee — many of them moving forward in states where there’s a Republican state-government trifecta.

“All politicians look to what has been successful in similar states as models for their own,” Ayres said. That makes sense, he added, particularly because “DeSantis has given his own twist on the education issue.”

The rapid replication of these ideas across red states indeed signals the potential power of DeSantis’s agenda in a Republican presidential primary. But if he snags the nomination, it’s possible that DeSantis overplayed his hand in just how much these moves will appeal to the broader public. While proposals targeting LGBTQ-related issues in schools could have a broader general appeal, culture war messaging concerning race specifically have a decidedly mixed track record among general election voters. It’s clear that some Republicans believe that attacking race-related teachings can win over certain coveted voting blocs, especially white parents, but last year’s midterm elections showed that belief doesn’t always translate to reality. Of course, DeSantis’s overwhelming victory was a big conversation-starter post-Election Day, but a number of other Republicans who had hardline education stances on these issues lost their respective races. It also might be hard for DeSantis to move to the middle on these issues the closer we get to 2024 — especially if he’s facing a number of Republican challengers who push him further to the right (as he’s arguably already experiencing with both Trump and Haley.) 

“Because Florida is so successful economically and so many people are moving here, I think DeSantis thinks that — along with his hardline education stance — is going to work for him,” said Sharon D. Wright Austin, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. But, she added, that message might not resonate beyond a GOP primary base. “It’s clear that he’s trying to appeal to these suburban voters — white women in particular — but, in doing so, he’s also offended so many other constituencies, like Black and LGBTQ voters. He’s also alienating independents and he’d definitely need their support to win a general election,” she said.

This lines up with my recent reporting, which pointed to polls suggesting that voters overall have become increasingly wary of moves to ban critical race theory and other discussions of race in schools. That February Data for Progress poll, for instance, found that an overwhelming majority of respondents were in favor of teaching issues like racism and slavery, among other things, in K-12 schools. Among likely voters, 83 percent said that slavery should be discussed “in an age-appropriate manner,” compared with 11 percent of respondents who said it shouldn’t be taught at all. Teaching about the American history of racism and racial equality, meanwhile, had similarly high support (79 percent) among those surveyed — as did discussions of modern-day racism and racial equality (69 percent) and social and political activism (66 percent). 

Data for Progress also asked voters whether they supported Florida’s push against the AP African American Studies course, and two-thirds of likely voters said they would support this class being taught at high schools in their own communities. Of course, there were racial and partisan fissures when it came to just how much voters supported this curriculum — but an overwhelming majority of Democrats (89 percent), a sizable majority of independent voters (69 percent) and just under half of Republicans (44 percent) said they were in favor.

But even if targeting race in education isn’t the best general election strategy — as the party itself predicted would be the case ahead of last November’s midterm elections — it’s possible that DeSantis could find easy victories through a bevy of other channels related to education. In Florida and various other states, lawmakers also have their eyes on a number of bills targeting transgender students. According to Undem, bills targeting LGBTQ rights are less salient to voters than racial issues. And framing debates around education as an attempt to empower parents could appeal to voters of all political stripes, she said. 

“Suburban voters and swing voters are more likely to oppose these racially motivated policies. But there’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to legislation around gender identity and kids, and I think there’s some segments of the population who may be more receptive to these bills,” she said. “The country is largely still learning about gender identity, so that makes it ripe for some groups to attack. Race is more blatant.” 

Of course, this year’s legislative session might be far enough in the rearview mirror by the time the Republican nomination is settled that whatever DeSantis does this year won’t really matter. But in the meantime, and especially before he’s an actual presidential candidate, DeSantis likely won’t slow his crusade against race and education. That’s because, at this point in the process, it’s more about establishing himself as the heir to Trumpism than challenging President Biden. That itself raises an interesting question regarding DeSantis’ impending presidential candidacy, though: Will GOP primary voters accept thinly veiled Trumpism if it’s not coming from Trump himself?

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