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DeSantis faces looming challenge with independent voters

When he announces his presidential bid in the coming months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have a problem when it comes to luring one key voter bloc: independents. 

While DeSantis overwhelmingly won his gubernatorial reelection in November, he struggled particularly with independent women voters. A recent Emerson College poll showed that more than 51 percent of Florida independent voters disapproved of his job performance as governor, with more than 61 percent of women disapproving of his leadership. 

“I think independent women rejected a lot of the hardcore Republicanism,” said Susan Del Percio, a longtime Republican strategist. “They’re not willing to go there. And his rhetoric has gotten uglier over time, so it’s become a bigger turnoff.”

Indeed, DeSantis has carved out a reputation for himself as a darling of the modern conservative movement by pushing a long list of hard-line policies and picking a near-constant stream of public political fights throughout his four years in the Florida governor’s mansion. 

He famously bucked federal public health officials in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, signed into law a controversial measure banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and led an effort to strip Disney of its self-governing district in Central Florida over the company’s criticism of that law.

And with the state’s annual legislative session now in full swing, other controversial policies are making their way to DeSantis’s desk. On Monday alone, he signed a bill allowing Floridians to carry guns without a state permit, while the Florida Senate approved a six-week abortion ban backed by DeSantis.

But as he prepares to launch a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he faces the looming possibility that his governing record could come back to haunt him, especially if he makes it through the primary and faces a broader electorate of more moderate and independent voters.

“The challenge for DeSantis is that he outflanks [former President] Trump to the right on COVID, colleges and crime and while helpful in a primary, ostensibly those positions could hurt him with independents in a general,” Martin Sweet, a political science professor at Purdue University, said. “This is the classic poli sci 101 ‘primary paradox.’ ” 

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said that while DeSantis has proven that he can govern effectively, there’s a risk in moving too far to the right.

“DeSantis has, in the Republican field, the most compelling governing record,” Curbelo said. “I think where he is taking too much risk is in trying to out-Trump Trump, and a lot of what he’s doing is to prove that he’s more conservative than Trump, but that doesn’t seem right.”

Camille Mumford, a communications director at Emerson College who has been involved in some of the analysis of the school’s poll, said the results among independents is “definitely an issue for his candidacy.” Mumford said weakness in the “pivotal” voting bloc, particularly among women, could potentially cost him the nomination. 

To be sure, DeSantis has a track record of success with independent voters that he can point to. He won 52 percent of independents voters in the November election, and polling shows that he performs better among independents than Trump. A survey from Quinnipiac University released last week found that 43 percent of independents have a favorable opinion of DeSantis compared to only 32 percent for the former president.

Whether that kind of support can translate to a national electorate, however, remains an open question.

“I think a lot of his support with independents last year came from the pandemic policies. People liked what he did and rewarded him for it,” one longtime Republican strategist with deep experience in Florida politics said. “But that’s also something specific to Florida voters. And Florida voters aren’t the same as Iowa voters or Virginia voters or whoever else.”

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said there’s little reason for DeSantis to worry about his appeal among independents, at least for now. He said that when he enters the 2024 race, his first priority will be winning the GOP primary — and he’ll need to energize the Republican Party’s conservative base to do that.

“‘Geez, Ron isn’t doing great with independents in the general’ isn’t a thought going through Team DeSantis right now,” Heye said. “If he runs, he’ll be in a primary first and that’s where his focus is and will be. In the meantime, most of what independent voters are hearing about him is coming through the lens of unfriendly media that spends a lot more time talking about book banning and Disney, than, say, job creation in Florida.” 

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that any challenge DeSantis faces with independent voters may not be unique to the Florida governor. The GOP has lurched rightward across the board, he said, making independents “hard to reach.”

And DeSantis may not need broad independent support to win in 2024, Zelizer added. What he will need, however, is the loyalty of the GOP and its voters.

“The GOP is so far right that to appeal to the party means taking stands that will be tough to sell at a broad level,” Zelizer said. “The problem is that Trump owns the rest of the space so it will be hard for DeSantis to compete with him. He doesn’t necessarily need them in a general election, as Trump showed, but then he has to have total loyalty and enthusiasm from most of the party.” 

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, suggested that there may be a playbook for DeSantis should he make it to the 2024 general election, pointing to Glenn Youngkin’s strategy for winning the Virginia governor’s mansion in 2021. 

After playing up his conservative bona fides in the GOP gubernatorial primary, Youngkin homed in on issues like crime, education and the economy in his general election bid, while keeping Trump and his controversial political brand at arm’s length. Ultimately, he captured the governor’s mansion in a state that President Biden won by 10 points a year earlier.

“If you’re Ron DeSantis, you’re not going to moderate anything when it comes to independents,” O’Connell said. “But you might take a page out of Glenn Youngkin’s book. It’s how you talk about it.”

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