When it comes to the Republican primaries, attacks on “wokeness” may be losing their punch.
For Republican candidates, no word has hijacked political discourse quite like “woke,” a term few can define but many have used to capture what they see as left-wing views on race, gender and sexuality that have strayed far beyond the norms of American society.
Gov. Ron DeSantis last year used the word five times in 19 seconds, substituting “woke” for Nazis as he cribbed from Winston Churchill’s famous vow to battle a threatened German invasion in 1940. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, speaks of a “woke self-loathing” that has swept the nation. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina found himself backpedaling furiously after declaring that “‘woke supremacy’ is as bad as white supremacy.”
The term has become a quick way for candidates to flash their conservative credentials, but battling “woke” may have less political potency than they think. Though conservative voters might be irked at modern liberalism, successive New York Times/Siena College polls of Republican voters nationally and then in Iowa found that candidates were unlikely to win votes by narrowly focusing on rooting out left-wing ideology in schools, media, culture and business.
Instead, Republican voters are showing a “hands off” libertarian streak in economics, and a clear preference for messages about “law and order” in the nation’s cities and at its borders.
The findings hint why Mr. DeSantis, who has made his battles with “woke” schools and corporations central to his campaign, is struggling and again show off Mr. Trump’s keen understanding of part of the Republican electorate. Campaigning in Iowa in June, Mr. Trump was blunt: “I don’t like the term ‘woke,’” he said, adding, “It’s just a term they use — half the people can’t even define it, they don’t know what it is.”
It was clearly a jab at Mr. DeSantis, but the Times’s polls suggest Mr. Trump may be right. Social issues like gay rights and once-obscure jargon like “woke” may not be having the effect many Republicans had hoped
“Your idea of ‘wokeism’ might be different from mine,” explained Christopher Boyer, a 63-year-old Republican actor in Hagerstown, Md., who retired from a successful career in Hollywood where he said he saw his share of political correctness and liberal group think. Mr. Boyer said he didn’t like holding his tongue about his views on transgender athletes, but, he added, he does not want politicians to intervene. “I am a laissez-faire capitalist: Let the pocketbook decide,” he said.
When presented with the choice between two hypothetical Republican candidates, only 24 percent of national Republican voters opted for a “a candidate who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media and culture” over “a candidate who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border.”
Around 65 percent said they would choose the law and order candidate.
Among those 65 and older, often the most likely age bracket to vote, only 17 percent signed on to the “anti-woke” crusade. Those numbers were nearly identical in Iowa, where the first ballots for the Republican nominee will be cast on Jan. 15.
Mr. DeSantis’s famous fight against the Walt Disney Company over what he saw as the corporation’s liberal agenda exemplified the kind of economic warfare that seems to fare only modestly better. About 38 percent of Republican voters said they would back a candidate who promised to fight corporations that promote “woke” left ideology, versus the 52 percent who preferred “a candidate who says that the government should stay out of deciding what corporations should support.”
Christy Boyd, 55, in Ligonier, Pa., made it clear she was no fan of the culture of tolerance that she said pervaded her region around Pittsburgh. As the perfect distillation of “woke” ideology, she mentioned “time blindness,” a phrase she views as simply an excuse for perpetual tardiness.
But such aggravations do not drive her political desires.
“If you don’t like what Bud Light did, don’t buy it,” she added, referring to the brand’s hiring of a transgender influencer, which contributed to a sharp drop in sales. “If you don’t like what Disney is doing, don’t go. That’s not the government’s responsibility.”
Indeed, some Republican voters seemed to feel pandered to by candidates like Mr. DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, whose book “Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” launched his political career.
Lynda Croft, 82, said she was watching a rise in murders in her hometown Winston-Salem, N.C., and that has her scared. Overly liberal policies in culture and schools will course-correct on their own, she said.
“If anyone actually believes in woke ideology, they are not in tune with the rest of society,” she said, “and parents will step in to deal with that.”
In an interview, Mr. Ramaswamy said the evolving views of the electorate were important, and he had adapted to them. “Woke” corporate governance and school systems are a symptom of what he calls “a deeper void” in a society that needs a religious and nationalist renewal. The stickers that read “Stop Wokeism. Vote Vivek” are gone from his campaign stops, he said, replaced by hats that read “Truth.”
“At the time I came to be focused on this issue, no one knew what the word was,” he said. “Now that they have caught up, the puck has moved. It’s in my rearview mirror as well.”
Law and order and border security have become stand-ins for “fortitude,” he said, and that is clearly what Republican voters are craving.
(The day after the interview, the Ramaswamy campaign blasted out a fund-raising appeal entitled “Wokeness killing the American Dream.”)
DeSantis campaign officials emphasized that the governor in recent days had laid out policies on border security, the military and the economy. Foreign policy is coming, they say. But they also pointed to an interview on Fox News in which Mr. DeSantis did not back away from his social-policy focus.
Along with several other Republican-led states, Florida passed a string of laws restricting what G.O.P. lawmakers considered evidence of “wokeness,” such as gender transition care for minors and diversity initiatives. Mr. DeSantis handily won re-election in November.
“I totally reject, being in Iowa, New Hampshire, that people don’t think those are important,” he said of his social policy fights. “These families with children are thanking me for taking stands in Florida.”
For candidates trying to break Mr. Trump’s hold on a Republican electorate that sees the former president as the embodiment of strength, the problem may be broader than ditching the term “woke.”
As it turns out, social issues like gender, race and sexuality are politically complicated and may be less dominant than Mr. Trump’s rivals thought. The fact that Mr. Trump has been indicted three times and found legally liable for sexual abuse has not hurt him. Only 37 percent of Republican voters nationally described Mr. Trump as more moral than Mr. DeSantis (45 percent sided with Mr. DeSantis on the personality trait), yet in a head-to-head matchup between the two candidates, national Republican voters backed Mr. Trump by 31 percentage points, 62 percent to 31 percent.
The Times/Siena poll did find real reluctance among Republican voters to accept transgender people. Only 30 percent said society should accept transgender people as the gender they identify with, compared with 58 percent who said society should not accept such identities.
But half of Republican voters still support the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, against the 41 percent who oppose same-sex marriage. Fifty-one percent of Republican voters said they would choose a candidate promising to protect individual freedom over one guarding “traditional values.” The “traditional values” candidate would be the choice of 40 percent of Republicans.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, responded simply: “Americans want to return to a prosperous nation, and there’s only one person who can do that — President Trump.”
Mr. Boyer, who played Robert E. Lee in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” bristled at having to make a choice: “It’s hardly an either-or: Why wouldn’t I want someone to fight for law and order and against this corrupt infiltration in our school systems?” he asked.
But given a choice, he said, “the primary job of government is the protection of our country and there’s a tangible failure of that at our border.”