Editor’s note: For an alternate perspective on this issue, read National Review Online editor Jack Butler’s take on “The Great Awokening” and the GOP.

As the 2024 Republican presidential primary has begun to take shape, many in the party are flocking to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a potential alternative who could prevent Donald Trump from securing the GOP nomination for a third time.

While DeSantis has not yet formally entered the race, that hasn’t stopped prominent Republicans from publicly pledging their support for the Sunshine State governor and basically begging him to run. For example, former Donald Trump appointee Ken Cuccinelli recently announced his own political action committee — complete with a fancy video — to back a potential DeSantis candidacy.

Perspective: The Great Awokening was a gift for the GOP

But what I found notable about Cuccinelli’s move wasn’t the announcement of his support. After all, DeSantis fanboys are a dime a dozen in professional GOP circles at the moment. No, I found myself fixated on a single line from his announcement video.

Cuccinelli ticks down a laundry list of what he considers DeSantis’s accomplishments, before landing on one that literally made me cackle aloud to myself: “Gov. DeSantis has acted to defend our children from Disney like no one in history.”

On its face, this would have been a manifestly absurd, out-of-left-field statement even a few years ago. After all, Disney is an iconic American brand that has been beloved by millions of families for generations. In that context, trumpeting “stood up to Mickey Mouse” as a key resume line for a potential White House aspirant seems bizarre at best and completely unhinged at worst.

And yet, this is the Republican Party in 2023.

Over the past year, DeSantis has been one of the leading figures in the party’s “war on wokeness,” even going so far as to declare Florida to be the place “where woke goes to die.” As governor, he has pushed a controversial policy agenda aimed at rooting out supposed wokeness from every facet of the state, including its laws, schools and businesses. And yes, that includes picking a high-profile fight with Disney, whose Orlando theme parks are one of the state’s largest employers and, perhaps most ironically, where DeSantis himself married his wife.

As someone who appears to have designs on the Republican nomination for president, DeSantis has positioned his work on the frontlines of the “war on wokeness” as a defining plank of his rising public profile and, as a result, it stands to be the central thrust of his nascent 2024 messaging strategy. However, a slew of recent polls indicate that highlighting his culture war bona fides might not be the wisest political strategy for DeSantis — or any Republican candidate, for that matter. 

A new Ipsos/USA Today poll found that a majority of Americans (56%) — including 51% of independents and even 37% of Republicans — continue to define “wokeness” as simply being “informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices,” while only 39% opt for the more GOP-friendly framing of the term as “being overly politically correct and policing others’ words.”

Opinion: Being ‘woke’ is not anti-American
America’s ‘Great Awokening,’ explained

A free tip for my Republican friends: If you’ve spent multiple years relentlessly attacking something and a solid majority of the public still defines it in primarily positive terms, it might be time to find a new boogeyman.

And that same problem extends to several key planks of what looks to be the GOP’s “anti-woke” policy agenda. 

DeSantis infamously opted to make Florida’s education system one of the main battlegrounds in his anti-wokeness crusade. His so-called “Stop WOKE” Act and other initiatives have banned schools from teaching certain aspects of American history that deal with race and diversity — even going so far as to mandate the removal of books.

Similarly, DeSantis has also sought to prohibit diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory programs at the state’s public universities and other higher education institutions.

But those efforts appear to have backfired — particularly as DeSantis prepares to pivot to a national audience. In February, a national poll conducted by CBS News found that overwhelming majorities of Americans believe that books should never be banned for criticizing U.S history (83%), discussing ideas that some might disagree with (85%), discussing race (87%) or depicting slavery (87%).

On the contrary, more than 3 in 4 respondents (76%) said that schools should be allowed to “teach about ideas and historical events that might make some students uncomfortable,” with 68% saying that doing so would help students “understand what others went through.” In fact, a full two-thirds of Americans said that public schools currently teach too little about Black history, with an additional 24% saying that they teach the right amount. 

Maybe it’s just me, but that sure doesn’t sound like a nation crying out for DeSantis to ride in on his white horse and save their children from being taught about Black history while clearing out the school library.

And it doesn’t end there. Most Americans also oppose DeSantis’ so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which currently prohibits classroom lessons that touch on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, and that the governor is now seeking to expand to all grades. In a 2022 ABC News/Ipsos poll, more than 6 in 10 respondents said they opposed such a policy (62%), while only 37% supported a prohibition.

Things aren’t going much better on DeSantis’ secondary battlefield: the business world. In February, the Florida governor proposed legislation that would see the state ban ESG investing — an investing framework that encourages the consideration of the environmental sustainability and social impact of a particular investment decision, in addition to traditional financial factors. True to form, the conservative echo chamber has followed suit, sinking a significant amount of energy and communications firepower into demonizing environmental, social and governance investments as an insidious form of “woke capitalism.” 

But those efforts don’t appear to be connecting with most voters. A recent poll from Climate Power reveals that 57% of Americans still don’t even know what ESG investing is — so clearly those efforts are not breaking through. And what’s worse for the GOP, when respondents are actually informed of what environmental, social and governance investing is, they believe financial managers should be able to take environmental factors into account when making investment decisions, by a 20-point margin. Ouch!

Even DeSantis’ personal battle royale with Disney — perhaps unsurprisingly — isn’t exactly ingratiating him with normal, middle-of-the-road American voters. After facing a prolonged political assault by a national political figure, a November survey from The Economist and YouGov still found the company with a 55% favorability rating overall, helped along by a 56% mark among independents and a 67% rating among self-described moderates.

The same poll found DeSantis at just 38% favorability among all Americans, with independents (30%) and moderates (35%) viewing him even less positively. 

If you can’t win the middle, you can’t win the White House — and the middle still likes Mickey Mouse.

No matter how you slice it, all of this adds up to a less-than-stellar start to the 2024 cycle for the GOP’s messaging machine and the party’s much-ballyhooed rising star. Republicans may believe they can ride this anti-“wokeness” crusade back to power in Washington — but the numbers say they should go back to the drawing board for a winning issue.

Steve Pierce, a contributing writer for Deseret, is a Democratic strategist and communications consultant who advises campaigns, causes and brands on matters of message and strategy. He currently works as a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive — a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. — and previously held roles with Priorities USA, Hillary For America and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, among others.