The pandemic is central to Ron DeSantis’ brand. Will voters still care in 2024?

Polls show that other issues have long replaced the coronavirus pandemic as the public’s top concern.
A woman carries a sign during an anti-mandate rally outside the Florida Capitol on Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee. Polling shows that the public is much less concerned about the coronavirus pandemic now than they were in 2020 and 2021.
A woman carries a sign during an anti-mandate rally outside the Florida Capitol on Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee. Polling shows that the public is much less concerned about the coronavirus pandemic now than they were in 2020 and 2021. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Jan. 26|Updated Feb. 23

Fresh off his inauguration and two weeks into his second term, Gov. Ron DeSantis called a news conference to announce one of his first policy proposals since his reelection. It trod familiar ground.

Citing what he said was the potential for the return of mask or COVID vaccine mandates from the federal government, he promised that the state Legislature would permanently protect Floridians from such threats by re-upping 2021 legislation set to expire this year.

DeSantis said the fight against the “biomedical security state” is not over, and later referenced the Biden administration’s appeal of a Tampa judge’s ruling throwing out mask requirements on airplanes. “Some of these people just won’t quit,” he told the crowd in Panama City Beach. “This is just nuts that we’re still doing this.”

Polling shows that the public, both in Florida and nationwide, is no longer thinking about the pandemic as a major issue. In fact, it’s been months since economic issues surpassed the pandemic as the chief concern of Floridians, according to University of South Florida surveys. National sampling by Gallup has consistently found since early 2022 that only single-digit percentages of people list coronavirus and other diseases as their top concern.

DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus has become central to his national brand and could be a key point of contrast against other political opponents should he launch an expected run for president. But it’s yet to be seen whether such a focus could risk becoming stale by 2024.

“You don’t want to become Rudy Giuliani, who was mocked for finishing every sentence with 9/11,” said Alex Conant, a Republican public relations consultant who previously worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “It’s hard to imagine COVID-19 is the top issue two years from now. If it is, it’s because things have gone terribly wrong.”

But Conant said that so far, DeSantis has managed the balancing act well — using the pandemic as a key part of his story while also making TV appearances to highlight other issues, like going after “woke” companies or education reform.

“Presidential elections are always about the future,” he added. “That said, I think the governor’s handling of COVID-19 is a defining issue for him.”

A spokesperson for DeSantis’ political team did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Democrats have been less favorable in their reviews. One House Democratic staffer, Jackson Peel, tweeted a comparison of DeSantis to an ‘80s band that can’t stop playing its greatest hit.

“Floridians are facing many real problems,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, the House minority leader. She rattled off housing affordability, health care access and the property insurance crisis as examples. Last week’s announcement “doesn’t address any of those real problems. This is more grievance-mongering and political ambitions from Ron DeSantis.”

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The signs that DeSantis is edging toward a presidential run have only grown stronger. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News last week to compare his foreign policy chops to President Joe Biden’s — highlighting the Florida National Guard’s response to an influx of Cuban and Haitian migrants arriving on the shores of the Keys, and teasing a potential upcoming proposal to limit the Chinese Communist Party from buying land in Florida, which Republicans in Congress have said is happening in other states.

“We’re stepping in where the federal government is failing,” DeSantis told viewers of the cable news show.

Ready for Ron, a federal political committee with an online petition to “draft DeSantis for president,” is planning to spend $3.3 million in the next six months, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission. That sum is the group’s largest expenditure yet and will go toward TV ads as well as other online and mail promotional materials and building a “substantial volunteer network,” said the group’s lawyer, Dan Backer.

At the news conference announcing the new pandemic-related proposals, Republican U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn openly referenced DeSantis’ presidential aspirations, to the delight of the audience.

“I want to help you in Washington,” he said, referencing the state’s leaders. “But I got an idea, Ron. Maybe you could come help?”

DeSantis, who took the lectern after the comment, did not respond, and did not take questions following the event.

DeSantis’ backers contend, particularly given the governor’s 19-point reelection victory, there’s little chance voters will lose interest in what he has to say about the pandemic.

“Do Yankees fans ever get tired of hearing how many times they won the World Series?” said Justin Sayfie, a veteran Republican lobbyist who worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush, including an informal role in his 2016 presidential campaign.

Sayfie said that while voters may have tired of the virus itself, they still care deeply about the economy and education — topics that DeSantis has inextricably woven into the story of how Florida weathered the pandemic.

“It may seem (DeSantis’ messaging) is COVID-related, but in reality it’s really economic prosperity-related,” he said. “It’s about people who are employed who know they wouldn’t have been had a different policy been pursued.”

Joshua Scacco, a professor specializing in political communications at the University of South Florida, said it’s unusual for a politician to so heavily focus on an issue that’s not top of mind for many voters. But his pandemic approach is likely one way DeSantis will continue to increase his “brand awareness,” Scacco said, as well as also differentiate himself from former President Donald Trump, who presided over Operation Warp Speed and (unlike DeSantis) has publicly said he received a booster.

“What you’re seeing is a very clear attempt by the governor and his administration to redefine what the pandemic meant … as a moment where the government was engaged in overreach,” Scacco said, noting that the public still does not agree on an overarching takeaway from COVID-19. “And it doesn’t seem like he will stop at Biden. I think he will also push that toward Trump.”