Gov. Ron DeSantis finds himself in a peculiar position while managing the biggest crisis of his political career.
The Republican leader is still more liked than disliked in Florida, but his popularity has fallen ever since he announced the first coronavirus cases in the Sunshine State.
Similarly, most Floridians think DeSantis has handled this emergency well, but governors in other states are getting much higher marks for their coronavirus response, according to the latest Washington Post/Ipsos poll. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of how their governor is facing this challenge; but in Florida, 60 percent feel the same about DeSantis.
Why is this? And what can DeSantis do about it?
For answers, the Tampa Bay Times surveyed more than 200 of the state’s most plugged-in politicos — campaign operatives, fundraisers, party officials, lobbyists, political scientists and more from both side of the aisle. They were allowed to weigh-in anonymously to encourage honesty from people closely involved in the political process. Most aren’t strangers to distress and some deal with crisis management full-time.
When the Times polled the Florida Insiders in March, about 60 percent gave DeSantis an A or B for his response to the coronavirus. Asked to grade him again two months later, the As and Bs dropped to half, while the Ds and Fs have doubled to 30 percent.
Several pointed out this is an unprecedented global crisis with imperfect solutions, and difficult decisions will always leave some people unhappy.
“People want to blame someone for anything that does not go as planned and he is at the top,” one Republican said. “Long after this is over I think people will appreciate his measured step by step approach.”
Added another: “He had no place to go but down, but he still remains highly popular.”
But many others — from both parties — said DeSantis has suffered from unforced errors and a partisan approach. Other governors appear to have won over bipartisan support despite making tough public health and economic choices. About 86 percent of Ohioans support Republican leader Mike DeWine’s coronavirus response, for example, and 81 percent of New Yorkers are behind Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York.
Meanwhile, six in 10 of Floridians approve of DeSantis’ coronavirus approach.
“Some Democrats and independents who were pleasantly surprised by the governor earlier in his term became disenchanted with his response to COVID-19,” explained one Insider not affiliated with either party. “During a crisis, many people expect strong executive action and DeSantis instead waited several weeks to issue a stay at home order (objectively, this may or may not have been a good strategy, but it is not what the majority of Floridians wanted to see at that time). So despite the fact that Florida is doing pretty well on COVID-19 deaths compared to the other states, DeSantis is not getting much credit yet."
Bringing in people from the other side of the aisle could have united the state around his response, one Democrat said. “Allow everyone to have a voice because it makes it harder to criticize him from a partisan lens with Democrats are at the table.”
Several Insiders said DeSantis needed to show more empathy and compassion. Others said his criticism of experts and the media appeared petty. One veteran Republican called DeSantis, “Tone deaf."
“I get he doesn’t understand the plight of the average Floridian, but his team should stop telling him what he wants to hear.”
The most frequently discussed theory for DeSantis’ lower polling is his close relationship to President Donald Trump. The word “Trump” came up nearly 60 times in the responses from the Florida Insiders.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, are vexed why DeSantis has chosen this moment to realign himself with Trump, whose response to coronavirus has polarized the country. According to the Washington Post poll, 43 percent of Americans — almost exclusively Republicans — approve of Trump’s efforts to halt the virus.
DeSantis "has been acting and speaking more Trump-like,” said one Republican who otherwise gave DeSantis high marks. “People think he’s lost some of his original independence.” His advice? “Be bold, follow science and not politics. Stop trying to sound like Trump.”
Or, as another Republican put it: “Kissing Trump’s a-- is a losing strategy. Put Florida over your 2024 ambitions.”
Many said DeSantis hasn’t recovered from perceptions formed during his early missteps. In the first weeks of the crisis, DeSantis shared confusing, and sometimes conflicting, information with the public. It could take his office hours, even days, to clarify information. His orders often vexed local officials, many of which couldn’t get the governor on the phone.
If ever faced with a similar crisis, DeSantis should, “Work with cities and counties from day one,” one Democrat suggested.
His most confusing order was his most important one: the April 1 directive to effectively shut down the state. Hours after he issued it, DeSantis quietly signed a second executive order that attempted to clarify what localities could do on their own. It didn’t.
One Republican offered this advice to DeSantis: “Don’t put things in executive orders that you don’t mean. No waffling, no walking back.”
“He should have implemented more frequent, robust and regular briefings from the (emergency operations center) to demonstrate that he is fully and completely engaged, with all hands on deck,” said another Republican. “I hate to say it, but any success of Florida’s having flattened the curve is more related to luck than proactive, decisive action.”
Some suggested the lack of transparency has turned public opinion. Before the virus even arrived, DeSantis declined to share coronavirus testing figures. Then he waited a day to announce the state’s first two positive cases.
For weeks, his administration shielded cases at nursing homes and assisted living facilities from the public, and only relented when news organizations sued.
“Crisis comms 101: Get facts out there,” one Republican said. “Don’t hide info consumers expect and deserve.”
DeSantis is also juggling two crises at once: the coronavirus and an unemployment system failing to deliver benefits to hundreds of thousands of people out of work. DeSantis inherited a broken website not equipped to handle so many claims, but it has nonetheless created a public relations nightmare for the current office holder.
Almost 40 percent of Insiders said former governor-turned-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott is to blame for that mess, and about 35 percent faulted both Republicans. Only three out 200 respondents said DeSantis was solely responsible.
“This is the first time people have had the opportunity to observe how he handles situations that actually affect them,” a Republican said. “And the unemployment compensation debacle is reflecting on him even though he is trying to explain it away by blaming Rick Scott.”
Others said the media has made it difficult for DeSantis to change the narrative around his response, even as DeSantis has “found his footing,” as one put it. For example: His strategy to reopen Florida sooner than many states, but not as aggressively as his counterparts across the South, struck the right balance, many Insiders said.
“He’s earned some serious scrutiny but I think the national media has piled on him while he’s been better than at least half the GOP governors in this country,” one Democrat wrote. “I believe he’s been wishy-washy and too slow at times. I also don’t like his naked political appeals to his base with his demagogic rhetoric about New York. But I think his drop in popularity is due to a one-sided media storm no other elected official in the country has faced including the President.”
About 58 percent of respondents said May 4 was the right time for DeSantis to restart Florida’s economy; 38 percent said it was too soon. Public health experts have cautioned that reopening too much, too quickly could lead to a second wave of coronavirus cases.
A majority also said that DeSantis’ Phase One plan for reopening — allowing some customers at restaurants, stores and museums, but keeping bars, gyms and movie theaters closed — was just right. Three in 10, mostly Democrats, thought the plan is too aggressive with so many people still infected. The rest, mostly Republicans, said DeSantis should have restarted more of Florida’s economy.
“The media, by and large, portrayed the governor as indecisive and waffling, even though, by not imposing strict sanctions, he was being very decisive,” one Republican said. “He just could not get his message through to the people in any meaningful way.”
This month, 92 Democrats, 94 Republicans and 14 people registered “no party affiliation” or with another party responded to the poll. This month’s Florida Insiders are:
Joseph Abruzzo, Erin Aebel, Liz Alarcon, Tom Alte, Jason Altmire, Fernand Amandi, Peter Antonacci, Scott Arceneaux, Donna Arduin, Dave Aronberg, Brad Ashwell, Jon M. Ausman, Roger Austin, Tim Baker, Ryan Banfill, Christina Barker, Michael Barnett, Scott Barnhart, Patrick Baskette, Ashley Bauman, Geoffrey Becker, Samuel Bell, Allan Bense, Wayne Bertsch, Ron Bilbao, Barney Bishop III, Greg Blair, Katie Bohnett, Bill Bunkley, Alex Burgos, Dominic M. Calabro, Kristy Campbell, Tim Canova, Gabriela Castillo, Betty Castor, Kevin Cate, Mitch Ceasar, Alan Clendenin, Brad Coker, Gus Corbella, Brian Crowley, Husein Cumber, Carlos Curbelo, David Custin, Justin Day, Hayden Dempsey, Richard DeNapoli, Pablo Diaz, Victor DiMaio, Victor DiMaio, Tony DiMatteo, Michael Dobson, Paula Dockery, Doc Dockery, John Dowless, Bob Doyle, Pete Dunbar, Barry Edwards, Eric Eikenberg, Mike Fasano, Peter Feaman, Mark Ferrulo, Damien Filer, Marty Fiorentino, Mark Foley, Mark Foley, Kirk Fordham, Towson Fraser, Keith Frederick, Ellen Freidin, John French, Jack Furnari, Wayne Garcia, Stephen Gaskill, Josh Geise, Steve Geller, Richard Gentry, Julia Gill Woodward, Susan Glickman, Brian Goff, Susan Goldstein, Alma Gonzalez, Ron Greenstein, Thomas Grigsby, Joe Gruters, Stephanie Grutman Zauder, Mike Hamby, Marion Hammer, Chris Hand, Mike Hanna, Abel Harding, James Harris, Alexander Heckler, Rich Heffley, Bill Helmich, Cynthia Henderson, Laura Hernandez, Don Hinkle, Jim Holton, Jim Horne, Tyler Hudson, Yolanda Jackson, Aubrey Jewett, David Johnson, Jeff Johnson, Christina Johnson, Eric Johnson, Eric Jotkoff, Fred Karlinsky, Joshua Karp, Henry Kelley, John Konkus, Chris Korge, Jeff Kottkamp, Kartik Krishnaiyer, Stephanie Kunkel, Jackie Lee, Bill Lee, Matt Lettelleir, Beth Leytham, Shannon Love, Nikki Lowrey, Javier Manjarres, Roly Marante, William March, Daniela Martins, Beth Matuga, Nancy McGowan, Kathy Mears, Andrea Mercado, David Mica, Jamie Miller, Paul Mitchell, Travis Moore, Lucy Morgan, John Morgan, Samuel Neimeiser, Meredith O’Rourke, Stephanie Owens , Maurizio Passariello, Alex Patton, Brandon Patty, Darryl Paulson, Jorge Pedraza, Juan Penalosa, Evelyn Perez-Verdia, Rachel Perrin Rogers, Joe Perry, Ron Pierce, JC Planas, Van Poole, Evan Power, David Ramba, David Rancourt, George Riley, Jim Rimes, Franco Ripple, Patrick Roberts, Jason Rosenberg, Sarah Rumpf, Ron Sachs, April Salter, Tom Scarritt, April Schiff, Jack Seiler, Mel Sembler, Stephen Shiver, Kyle Simon, Alex Sink, Patrick Slevin, Stephanie Smith, Adam Smith, Eleanor Sobel, John Stemberger, Alan Stonecipher, Amber Stoner Nunnally, Nancy Ann Texeira, Phillip Thompson, Cory Tilley, Greg C. Truax, Frank Tsamoutales, Greg Turbeville, Christian Ulvert, Jason Unger, Karen Unger, Matthew Van Name, Steven Vancore, Nancy Watkins, Screven Watson, Kevin Watson, Jonathan Webber, Susie Wiles, Marley Wilkes, Mike Williams, Rick Wilson, Jamie Wilson, Leslie Wimes, Jon Woodard, Eric Zichella, Christian Ziegler, Mark Zubaly,
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