Posted on July 19, 2022

DeSantis’ Education Message Is Winning in Battleground States, Teacher Union Poll Finds

Marc Caputo and Jonathan Allen, NBC News, July 15, 2022

Before a friendly audience of conservative moms, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday excoriated political opponents for wanting to “sexualize” children and warp kids’ understanding of race and history.

The charged campaign rhetoric in remarks to the Moms for Liberty group was usual fare for DeSantis — and a major reason he’s in the top tier of potential GOP presidential candidates who now sits on an unprecedented $130 million war chest.

But the political backdrop was as atypical as unexpected: The day before his speech, one of the national teacher unions that opposes him released a battleground-state survey showing voters approve of DeSantis’ education policy positions, and even some of his rhetoric.

The American Federation of Teachers circulated the poll, conducted by the Democratic firm Hart Research, as a call to arms for its members and allies to emphasize more popular proposals like spending more on schools and reducing class sizes, and de-emphasize fights that center on cultural issues.

A major set of red flags in the poll for Democrats and teacher unions were a series of questions that look like they were ripped from DeSantis’s Friday speech on “critical race theory” and teaching kids about sexuality and gender identity. While the survey didn’t mention DeSantis by name, it tested education messages he has popularized nationally — more so than Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who won in a Democratic-leaning state last year on a parental-rights education platform that was far less provocative than DeSantis’.

One poll question found that voters, by a 32 percentage-point margin, said they were more likely to vote for candidates who believe public schools should focus less on teaching race and more on core subjects. By 27 points, they said schools should be banned from teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to kids in kindergarten through third grade. By 28 points, they said transgender athletes should be banned from competing in girls’ sports.

The same poll suggests DeSantis has been smart about where to draw the line. Most voters said they would be less likely to back candidates who want to prosecute teachers for instructing students on critical race theory and gender identity. The same goes for candidates who want books removed from school libraries, although DeSantis on Friday bashed some books as being too sexualized, and some Florida schools are banning books.

“DeSantis has been reasonably shrewd in choosing his culture war initiatives, avoiding toxic ideas like criminally prosecuting teachers,” Guy Molyneux, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey, said in an email to NBC News.

“BUT, going forward I think he will struggle to distinguish his approach from general Republican efforts to enflame political wars in school systems, which voters really don’t want,” Molyneux said. “And [the Supreme Court’s abortion] decision, with Clarence Thomas openly threatening same-sex marriage, has made it much harder for DeSantis to avoid being lumped in with a party that wants to turn back the clock on rights that Americans now take for granted.”

Recent polling on the Florida governor’s race is scant, but the most recent surveys generally show DeSantis leading either of his two top Democratic rivals, Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. DeSantis also has positive favorability ratings in most state polls.

Democrats, however, say they have reasons to be optimistic. The teachers union poll also tested Democratic messages on public education and found voters are much more likely to back candidates who favor expanding literacy programs and access to technical education; reducing class sizes; and teaching “anti-racist curricula” in ways that “represent and respect the experiences of students of color.”

One big takeaway from the poll is that Democrats are on firmer political ground when they talk about teaching the history of race relations in the U.S. than they are when they fight efforts to ban teaching about sexuality and gender identity.