DeSantis’ Position on Ukraine Divides the GOP Base and Has Few Backers Among the Broader Electorate
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent assertion that supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion is not a vital U.S. interest puts him on the same side of the issue as former President Donald Trump, whom he is expected to challenge in the 2024 Republican nominating contests. And while Morning Consult survey data suggests that may be the smartest short-term political stance, it could pose risks in the general election.
Ukraine-Skeptic Messages Resonate More With Republican Base
The Republican base is disproportionately skeptical of aiding Ukraine
- Last week, DeSantis waded into a divide on Ukraine policy among Republican figures, referring to the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” that was not a “vital” American interest, which slightly more Republican primary voters than not (46% vs. 37%) agreed with, according to the new survey.
- Among the general electorate, however, opinion trends decidedly in the other direction, with 49% of all voters saying that aiding Ukraine’s defense against Russia is a vital U.S. interest, compared with just 29% who say it isn’t.
- So, from a political perspective, it may well be true that breaking with Trump — the only other candidate or potential candidate in the 2024 field with significant polling support — on a fairly divisive topic brings more risk than upside. But barring unforeseen developments in relations with Kyiv, it also means that DeSantis could be forced to backpedal toward the mainstream position should he survive what’s sure to be a bruising primary against Trump.
Ukraine Policy Near Bottom of Priority List for Voters in 2024
Where Ukraine policy falls as a 2024 issue
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ranks near the bottom of the 2024 issue-priority list for both GOP base voters and the broader electorate, according to another recent Morning Consult survey. Nonetheless, 38% of all voters, and a third of potential Republican primary voters, say it’s “very important” in deciding whom to vote for, which makes it hard to gauge just how salient Ukraine policy will prove in both the GOP’s nominating contests and the general election.
- What’s more, at least 3 in 5 voters who plan to vote in the 2024 GOP primary or are eligible for the general election agree that national security is “very important” when deciding their 2024 vote. That suggests that Ukraine could be a more decisive issue if candidates are able to clearly identify the personal stakes for voters.
Even with DeSantis’ skepticism, Trump seen as worse for European allies
Setting aside the domestic political calculus, many in Europe see DeSantis as a preferable option to Trump despite his recent comments because of the latter’s well-known and often-criticized track record of badmouthing Ukraine and NATO, as well as his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Colloquial political wisdom advises going with the devil one knows, but in this case, an unknown quantity may be less risky, and DeSantis may yet discover a vital interest in Ukraine when it is politic to do so, experts said.
“Working with NATO and Europe makes sense for a sensible POTUS,” said Beppe Severgnini, a columnist and editor at Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper. “I can hardly imagine anyone worse than The Donald Redux.”
Nicolè M. Ford, who teaches Russian foreign policy at the University of Tampa, agreed that DeSantis was more likely to see the sense in aiding Ukraine if he were in a position to govern. However, she worries the already lukewarm support among American voters could cool if Kyiv fails to make a successful offensive during prime fighting conditions this spring and summer, changing the political calculus.
“I fear that unless Ukraine can pull off a big win, a Republican taking the White House could be a disaster for U.S. support for Ukraine,” she said.
The Morning Consult survey was conducted March 16-17, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,010 registered U.S. voters, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.