A recent New York Times survey paints a misleading picture
Donald Trump is crushing Ron DeSantis because MAGA voters don’t care about the culture wars and most want the Florida Governor to lay off woke corporations. This is the upshot of commentary around the latest New York Times/Siena poll of Republican primary voters. This analysis, however, is wrongheaded — even if it contains an element of truth.
When forced to choose between two options, “a candidate who promises to fight corporations that promote ‘woke’ left ideology”, and “a candidate who says that the Government should stay out of deciding what corporations can support”, the sample broke 52-38 for the libertarian rather than anti-woke choice. This prompted Benjy Sarlin at Semafor to gleefully conclude that “fighting woke corporations, probably DeSantis’ top issue, is somehow a loser among Republicans.”
Yet the question doesn’t ask whether people agree with fighting woke corporations, but rather what they prioritise. In other words, it taps into salience rather than attitudes. To appraise Republican attitudes, consider the following from surveys I conducted or analysed in 2021. Among 2020 Trump voters, 90% said political correctness had gone too far, 69% said the law should prevent “a firm from being able to discriminate against a Trump supporter in hiring”, and 65% said that “the Government should ban forms of mandatory diversity training”. The remainder were opposed or unsure. Trump voters really are anti-woke, and many want to see Government action to combat it.
On a second set of questions, however, answers are more finely balanced. While 51% of Trump voters said that “the Government should step in to overrule tech firms that ban or suspend users for making legal but controversial statements on social media about race, gender, or sexuality,” 30% disagreed. When it came to overruling private organisations “that punish employees” for making such statements, the margin in favour narrowed to 40-35.
The New York Times poll also reveals that GOP primary voters prioritise protecting individual freedom (51%) over traditional values (40%). This tells us that suspicion of Government is a powerful idiom among many Republican voters, and can sometimes check the desire to see authority clamp down on woke organisations. Score one for the Chamber of Commerce.
But question wording is also important, and on concrete issues cued by Trump the result can change swiftly. Thus, by a 59-29 margin, the Times found that Republican primary voters prioritise “Keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are” over cutting the deficit. They incline 69-17 in favour of saying that the US has lost out rather than gained from freer trade.
When asked whether society should “accept” or “NOT accept” transgender people “as the gender they identify with”, these voters break 58-30 against accepting trans people’s chosen gender. Among the core Trumpist 75% of these voters, the margin tilts 65-26. Not so libertarian.
In short, while there is an anti-Government streak in the Republican electorate, it is also a mistake to underplay the importance of the culture war issues with which they are familiar. In 2021, I found that nearly half ranked these issues (“political correctness, free speech, cancel culture, wokeness, people falsely accused of racism and sexism”) in their top three from a list of nine baskets in the figure above. It shows that the economy, Covid and immigration score higher, but religious and moral issues (a big theme during the Bush presidency) ranked lower.
A candidate who keys into these issues in a more concrete way than abstract mentions of “wokeness” can raise their importance among voters. The fact DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin successfully campaigned on the issue of critical race and gender ideology in schools while DeSantis is running second to a larger-than-life cult figure suggests these issues are going to feature prominently in the years to come.
The Florida Governor may not be able to outflank Trump on the culture wars, but in an electorate that leans two-to-one against the woke position, Republicans will be able to routinely outflank the Democrats.