Rage against Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates accelerated Ron DeSantis’ rise to the top of the Republican Party. It was supposed to be a key part of the governor’s plan to outflank Donald Trump in the 2024 primary.
But here’s the problem: Republican voters, at this point, largely just don’t care — at least not when they’re picking a candidate.
Six different Republican operatives, campaign officials, and pollsters described or shared with Rolling Stone internal data and surveys they’d conducted or reviewed last and this year. Some of these sources are Trump-aligned, some support DeSantis, and others back different 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls. Across the board in the surveys, Covid-related policy — including vaccines and vaccine mandates — did not rank as an item of high concern for voters. That held true even when voters were specifically given the option of Covid policy when asked about their concerns. Since the middle of last year, Covid-related policy did not show up in conservatives’ top 10, or top 15, issues in any form, leading various campaigns and consultants to declare it, for the most part, unuseful.
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
“We don’t agree on much in American politics these days but there’s one thing everyone agrees on: They’re pretty much over talking about or thinking about Covid-19,” says Kristen Soltis Anderson, a longtime Republican pollster who adds that she and her firm are not affiliated with any 2024 presidential campaigns. “So much so that [my firm] barely asks questions about [it] in our research anymore trying to understand the Republican primary electorate. While we know there’s lingering frustration over things like mandates and closures, this pales in comparison to issues like immigration and the economy.”
There is a small but vocal cadre of online vaccine obsessives, but polling suggests their numbers are far too small to swing a primary — and certainly not one in which DeSantis, according to polling averages from FiveThirtyEight, trails Trump by 30 percentage points.
DeSantis, according to one veteran GOP consultant aligned with his campaign, is “fighting the last war” if he continues to harp on anti-vaccine messaging.
The Florida governor still appears committed to fighting that culture war, or at least his top personnel do. Over the weekend, NBC News reported that Team DeSantis had let go of about a dozen staff members in what was characterized as “a cost-cutting measure.” Despite the shakeup — which comes less than two months into his declared presidential run — DeSantis has retained some of his most terminally online aides.
It may be that DeSantis is reticent to let go of an issue that was instrumental to his rise. During the pandemic, he became a folk hero on the right and conservative media for his denunciation of Covid lockdowns and mandates. But the latest iteration is something different: turning objections over lockdowns and mandates into an endorsement of anti-vax conspiracy theories. DeSantis himself has embraced hysterical theories about the Covid vaccines as a way to get to Trump’s right. The governor’s most extreme policy move on this matter came in December, when he demanded that the state’s Supreme Court empanel a grand jury investigation “to investigate crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Since declaring his candidacy, DeSantis has campaigned hard against not just vaccine mandates, but the Covid vaccines themselves. He has blasted doctors who offer childhood Covid-19 vaccinations, saying the medical world has “lost its mind” for “trying to jab 6-month-old babies with an mRNA shot.” His campaign has slammed Trump for his support of Operation Warp Speed, the public-private program that prioritized fast-track development of a Covid-19 shot. They wrote on Twitter in June: “For almost three years and counting, Donald Trump has consistently ignored, denied, and shut down those who raise safety concerns about his Warp Speed shots — even his own supporters. Why?”
Christina Pushaw, the 2024 DeSantis campaign’s director of rapid response has gone even further, publicly casting doubt on whether Covid vaccines had saved lives and tried to use the inoculations as an epithet — “the Trump Vaccine” — against the former president. In June, the “DeSantis War Room” also blamed Trump for refusing to “acknowledge any of the adverse effects” of the Covid vaccines when an Iowa voter claimed “we have lost people because you supported the jab.”
On June 20, the DeSantis presidential campaign kept going:
But as DeSantis and his team have railed, the policies have shifted as the Biden administration has deemphasized the issue in its words and actions. It has been nearly a year since President Biden in September declared the pandemic over. And in May, shortly before DeSantis launched his campaign, the Biden administration announced it would end the vaccine mandates for federal workers and travelers to the U.S., removing a key plank in the Florida governor’s grievance-fueled campaign platform.
Public polling data also reflects that Americans have mostly moved on from the once hot-button issue surrounding a virus that ravaged the nation and left more than 1 million dead in the United States alone. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that while support among Republicans for childhood vaccine mandates has dropped more than 22 percent since the Covid pandemic, 57 percent of Republicans still support them, as do 58 percent of white evangelical protestants — a key GOP primary demographic.
And some question whether DeSantis’ beliefs about Covid are authentic, particularly given how they shifted to the conspiratorial-right as his 2024 candidacy neared.
“No one believes he actually believes any of the stuff about the vaccine,” says one GOP megadonor who has supported DeSantis against Trump, but is now having doubts about the campaign’s abilities. “If you talk to the non-crazy people he’s got working for him, they don’t believe it, either. It’s politics.”
Like DeSantis, Trump has cultivated opposition to Covid vaccines for political gain, but the fact that DeSantis is risking making the ex-president seem more palatable to moderates on the issue is a feat. Though Trump has been sure to trumpet vaccine development as an achievement of his administration, the former president has consistently shown a desire to have it both ways on the issue, largely due to the fact that he’s constantly wary of alienating his base. Since 2021, Trump and the national Republican Party team had aggressively fundraised off of vaccine “FREEDOM” and Trump himself repeatedly refused pleas from some of his close allies — who were telling him it was an urgent matter of life and death, especially for his own anti-vax supporters — to launch his own massive pro-vaccine campaign in his post-presidency.
In 2024, however, Trump’s team is open about how it’s not emphasizing vaccines or vaccine mandates in its own campaign.
“When we’ve done our polling, including in June, we ask Republican voters what the most important issues that they care about are, including in this primary between Donald Trump, DeSantis, and others,” says John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s top pollsters. “Covid and the vaccine and the mandates do not even register nowadays as an issue among Republican voters. This is not what our voters are focusing on now.”
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been more than 1.1 million Covid deaths and more than 6 million Covid hospitalizations in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The risk of death or hospitalization is greatly diminished by the Covid vaccine. The May Pew survey found that, among unvaccinated respondents, 70 percent were Republican or leaned Republican.
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