Navigating Wokeness: Voter Perceptions and the 2024 Election
The term “wokeness,” deployed by some Republican presidential contenders and right-wing influencers, is about as toxic among the overall electorate and Republican primary voters as “socialism,” which the GOP has had some success turning into an electoral albatross for Democrats.
U.S. voters, including the GOP’s expected electorate, are more likely to blame educational institutions than corporations or Wall Street for taking social acceptance too far, painting a ripe target for conservative candidates in the 2024 campaign.
Transgender Americans will likely face increased stigmatization in the coming months given voters’ concerns about issues involving them, particularly when it comes to minors and college athletics.
Rather than a top issue for Republican primary voters, wokeness is a tool for channeling broader cultural grievances on the right. Among all U.S. voters, only 35% see woke ideologies as a “major threat” or a “very important” issue when thinking about their 2024 vote.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the No. 2 contender for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination, has beaten the drum of anti-wokeness. He has criticized major companies, the media, educational institutions and Democrats for efforts he calls “woke.” Supporters of such efforts, meanwhile, say they’re aimed at promoting social equality and acceptance in the United States.
Our new research shows that conservative messaging is especially resonant among those who expect to vote in a Republican presidential primary or caucus in 2024. And while a number of corporations have taken hits in recent years for their diversity efforts, energy on the right appears strongest when anti-woke rhetoric is directed toward schools — especially over transgender issues — suggesting educational institutions are riper targets.
This is daily data: We survey thousands of U.S. voters every day, producing exclusive daily tracking among thousands of Republican primary voters ahead of Election Day.
Understand true impact in real time: Other, more traditional polls with smaller sample sizes may look noisy or show jumps in support. Our dedication to high-frequency survey research means larger sample sizes of voters and demographics, with more consistency and more stability. Daily data matters.
Looking ahead to the general election, there is also room for beating the anti-woke drum to rile up some of the broader electorate, but voters overall are not nearly as likely to see the issue as a major problem. Focusing too much on wokeness is a risk for the Republican Party, putting it out of step with larger concerns among key voters it will need to win congressional majorities and the presidency.
How the American electorate feels about wokeness
The word “wokeness” itself resonates with the overall electorate, with roughly 3 in 4 voters expressing positive or negative views about it, our new survey found. This is similar to the share who have feelings about “MAGA” — shorthand for former President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” which Democrats have leveraged to paint Republican opponents as extreme — or “socialism,” the GOP’s go-to campaign trail pejorative.
Voters View Wokeness as Dimly as They Do Socialism
According to the June 16-18 survey, the overall electorate is 17 percentage points more likely to express negative opinions about wokeness than positive ones. The term is particularly off-putting to the right, with 67% of potential GOP primary voters viewing wokeness unfavorably — nearly matching their scorn for socialism.
The term “wokeness” has long been used by African American activists, but it became more prominent online in response to police killings of Black people, including Michael Brown in 2014. It took on a broader meaning to acknowledge social equality issues facing women after Trump’s 2016 election as well as other issues facing Black Americans amid mass protests following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Republicans responded by elevating concerns about a “woke mob” in reference to protesters and “woke capital” in reference to corporations and investors embracing social movements.
Right-wing criticism of wokeness has given rise to presidential candidates. Vivek Ramaswamy became a conservative media fixture for his activism against corporate diversity, equity and inclusion and environmental, social and corporate governance practices. And DeSantis, who declared Florida the state “where woke goes to die,” made national headlines for backing the Stop WOKE Act targeting critical race theory and legislation banning classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity that opponents have derisively called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
To summarize their positions, to be woke is to force a liberal ideology upon Americans — and anti-wokeness puts these candidates in line with the bulk of their party’s 2024 electorate.
How Voters Define Being ‘Woke’
When asked to define what it means to be “woke,” 55% of potential Republican primary voters chose “forcing a liberal ideology on American society,” compared with a quarter who selected “advocating for social equality and acceptance in American society.”
The belief that wokeness is forcing something upon Americans was shared most strongly among DeSantis supporters, 72% of whom aligned with the statement, compared with 54% of Trump backers and 47% of those who support another candidate. Unlike DeSantis, Trump — himself a critic of some things the Florida governor calls “woke” — has not leaned so heavily into explicitly anti-woke rhetoric. In June, the former president told Iowa voters that “half the people can’t even define it — they don’t know what it is.”
Still, DeSantis’ focus on the issue could give him something to tug on as he seeks support from the roughly 4 in 5 potential primary voters who are not currently supporting his bid, especially older GOP voters who are more likely to agree with his perspective on wokeness than their younger peers.
Where Republican candidates can meet their voters on wokeness
DeSantis caught major media attention in the lead-up to his presidential campaign for going to war against The Walt Disney Co. over its public opposition to his so-called Don’t Say Gay law.
Our data suggests that DeSantis’ continued anti-wokeness attacks on educational institutions may resonate more with the party’s electorate than those aimed at corporations or Wall Street. Many also blame social media platforms, which some conservatives have accused of de-emphasizing or censoring right-wing accounts.
Businesses Don’t Get the Brunt of Voter Blame for Pushing Wokeness Too Far
When asked whether a selection of groups and institutions are going “too far” to promote social equality and acceptance in the United States, potential Republican primary voters were most likely to blame the news media and the Democratic Party, along with social media platforms.
Beyond these institutions — which have long been targets of ire from the right — more than half said the same of colleges and universities (53%) and K-12 schools (52%). That’s higher than the 43% and 33%, respectively, who blame corporations and Wall Street, both of which have faced heat from the right for supporting DEI, ESG and other social initiatives.
Furthermore, when asked about social issues that some politicians have described as threatening, the Republican electorate is generally less animated about ones involving businesses than they are about those involving children and schools, especially when it comes to LGBTQ matters.
Transgender Issues Top GOP Primary Voters’ List of Social Concerns
For example, fewer than 2 in 5 potential Republican primary voters see allowing drag performances in places such as bars and restaurants, or requiring companies to offset their carbon emissions by 2050, as a “major threat.” Much of the party’s electorate similarly lets colleges off the hook for hosting DEI programs.
On the other hand, large shares of the GOP’s expected voters said allowing children to receive gender-transitioning care (73%) or permitting transgender athletes to participate in college sports (65%) constitute major threats.
When it comes specifically to classroom instruction, the Republican Party’s electorate is especially against instruction about LGBTQ issues and critical race theory — even at the college level.
Voters Are Particularly Opposed to LGBTQ Instruction in K-12 schools
The majority of potential Republican primary voters also oppose including LGBTQ civil rights, critical race theory, and sexual orientation and gender identity in curricula at both the college and K-12 levels, creating an opening for candidates who may potentially want to go even further than DeSantis has and even more headaches for educational institutions, at least during the Republican primary.
Among the overall electorate, support for classroom discussion of topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, critical race theory, and the LGBTQ civil rights movement is divided when it comes to K-12 classrooms, but there’s little question that such subjects are fair game for colleges.
Looking ahead to 2024
Roughly six months from the first GOP nominating contest, potential Republican primary voters are only slightly more likely to say Trump would do a better job of fighting wokeness than DeSantis, 78% to 74%, due to more people being aware of the former president. The issue is likely to remain prominent in the contest, especially given how big a deal the party’s electorate thinks it is.
GOP Primary Voters Say Wokeness Is as Threatening as Domestic Terrorism
Our data found that 57% of potential primary voters said woke ideology in American society is a major threat to the United States, matching the share who said the same of domestic terrorism and just slightly higher than the share who cited global economic disruptions.
Still, the GOP’s voters are unlikely to respond solely to such messaging given their greater unanimity on the threats of inflation, China’s growing influence and illegal immigration into the United States. Rather, the wokeness issue, as DeSantis and others have famed it, is a tool for channeling larger cultural grievances on the right.
But like some other hot-button issues on the right, there is a chance the emphasis on wokeness could alienate the larger electorate. Only 35% of voters see fighting woke ideology as a “very important” issue when thinking about their 2024 vote.
To American Voters, Fighting Wokeness Is as Important as Promoting It
Voters are around twice as likely to prioritize the economy, health care and entitlement programs compared with fighting wokeness. Arguments such as Trump’s about growing the economy and protecting Social Security and Medicare remain in line with where primary and general election voters are.
Still, targeting wokeness does harness unique energy on the right, meaning universities and even major corporations will have to grapple with the issue as the campaign unfolds.
Already on Capitol Hill, House conservatives gummed up the process for passing the typically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act over issues such as rights for transgender people. In addition to his attacks on Disney, DeSantis has entered the fray over the controversy involving Bud Light. And countless state legislators have pushed back on educational institutions when it comes to LGBTQ issues.
Ellyn Briggs, our analyst covering brands and marketing, noted in a recent memo that roughly 1 in 4 consumers would consider boycotting a “woke” brand, but she warned that such controversies can take on a life of their own in the increasingly polarized media environment — a concern that we expect will only grow in an election year.
Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Prior to his current role, Eli was Morning Consult’s senior reporter covering U.S. politics. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].