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Florida Swing Voters Aren’t Sold on DeSantis or Rubio 

Trump-to-Biden voters don’t like the Republican incumbents in Florida.
August 22, 2022
Florida Swing Voters Aren’t Sold on DeSantis or Rubio 
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek on February 25, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. CPAC, which began in 1974, is an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

For months, the general consensus has been that in Florida’s two marquee midterm races—for governor and U.S. Senate—the Republican candidates are likely to prevail. But recent polling shows both races tighter than expected for Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio. On August 9 we conducted focus groups with a dozen Trump-to-Biden voters and these people explained why they were open to replacing both incumbents.

Let’s start with the likely contest between DeSantis and former governor Charlie Crist. If the governor’s race in November is indeed DeSantis versus Crist, nine respondents said they would take Crist, two would take DeSantis, and one was undecided. Our swing voters described DeSantis as “power-hungry,” “petty,” “an opportunist,” “egotistical,” “anti-abortion,” and a “bull in a china shop.”

“[I didn’t like] the revenge politics with the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” explained B.J., 43, from Deland. “I’m a big Disney fan. That hit pretty close to home. There was just no point to it. It was just pure revenge politics. Also, I don’t agree with how he handled the Covid pandemic, like restricting local municipalities, not allowing them to enforce mask mandates and things like that. I think that was highly inappropriate.”

Lance, 27, from Orlando remarked, “I disagree with DeSantis on quite a few things . . . It’s purely just his stance on things. [I’m troubled that he’s] anti-abortion, primarily, anti-transgender—more the social issues.”

“[DeSantis is] petty. He’s all about keeping government out of business unless the business disagrees with him, and then it becomes personal,” said Thomas, 27, from Coral Gables.

“DeSantis is too much like Trump. . . . I don’t trust him,” commented Kim, 60, from St. Augustine.

Nik, 37, from Miami Shores, added, “If Crist can win in November here in Florida, then that puts DeSantis in a really bad spot in terms of trying to run for president in ’24.”

Our swing voters—four independents, one Republican, and seven Democrats—were unanimously opposed to the Parental Rights in Education Act, often referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its critics. They also unanimously opposed the Stop WOKE Act, which DeSantis signed (and a judge has now suspended enforcement of, pending lawsuits) meant to keep “critical race theory” out of schools and workplaces.

Eleven of the respondents believed that DeSantis is deliberately trying to appeal to Trump voters by being continuously provocative, the way Trump is provocative. None of them wanted DeSantis to eventually become president. “I think he’d further divide our country, and I don’t feel safe with him,” said B.J. from Deland.

Only five could think of something DeSantis has done as governor they like.

Chris, 49, from Port St. Lucie, said,

I feel that he is taking away some of the regulations—some things that need to be removed. I feel like he’s done a good job of promoting the state, getting people to come down here, for better or worse. I also feel that he wants to privatize education, but at the same time, he has helped out public education a little bit here and there. I also feel that it was probably the best decision to keep everything open during COVID, as it has been proven the red states did better during COVID compared to a lot of the other blue states who closed everything down.

Respondents also cited providing laptops to schoolchildren and creating a program for children with mental health issues in the schools.

As for Crist, some knew he had switched from being a Republican to a Democrat, and labeled him a “flip-flopper,” but they also described him as “an effective governor,” “personable,” and “our best hope against DeSantis.”

For the Senate race, our swing voters had very positive things to say about Congresswoman Val Demings, who is likely to be the Democratic challenger to Marco Rubio. Many knew that she is a former police officer, and described her as “honorable,” “powerful but humble,” “strong,” “respectful,” “agreeable,” “progressive,” and a “girl boss.” Notably, there was only one negative comment, about how Demings did not properly secure a gun while she was chief of police in Orlando.

Respondents described Rubio much more critically, using words such as “far-right,” “not genuine,” “puppet,” “absent,” “a coward,” and “a sellout.”

Ten said they would choose Demings over Rubio in the upcoming election, citing complaints about Rubio and their desire for change. Only one swing voter could tell us even one thing Rubio has done as a senator that they liked: his support for Cuban refugees in Miami. Another praised him as a family man.

“Rubio has served two terms [as a U.S. Senator],” commented Felipe, 44, from Winter Garden. “I think it’s time for a change in Florida . . . [Demings] is married to Jerry Demings, the mayor of Orange County. I respect their background. They were police officers, and I think they’re connected to the community.”

Thomas, 27, from Coral Gables, explained, “[Rubio is] standing in the way of progress at every turn. Even if he’s not directly proposing something, he’s denying it a chance to be heard—I’m talking about a bill or an idea just based on party-line vote alone as opposed to actually reading through it and thinking about it. I would say the constant negativity [from Rubio is what’s troubling].”

“[Rubio] has been in office for a while. I think just based on what [Demings] has said leading up to the [Democratic] primary, my interpretation is that she understands our needs—I’m talking about locally . . . I think there’s a bit of a disconnect there [with Rubio],” remarked Lance, 27, from Orlando.

Lillian, 36, from Kissimmee, explained, “I believe she has a little more energy. Sometimes, when you’re in a job for too long, you just drag your feet, but she comes in a whole bag of sunshine like, ‘I’m ready to do this.’ That’s at least how I feel.”

Shannon, 35, from Petersburg, added, “Rubio has one of the worst records for attendance in the U.S. Senate. I’m incredibly concerned about that . . . That’s a big issue for me.”

There will be environmental factors at play in the midterms, starting with how voters feel about former President Trump and current President Biden. Some of which are predictable and others of which are not. For instance, few people expected the FBI to execute a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago on August 8. And come November, this event could drive Republican turnout. But among our dozen persuadable Florida voters, 11 said they believed the search was justified. The same number said that if Trump took classified documents from the White House when he left office, that would constitute a serious crime.

While there was no love for Donald Trump in this group, there was also very little love for Joe Biden. The majority of respondents said that when they see Biden on TV or their device, they feel a negative emotion. Five of the 12 said they regretted voting for Biden. And yet, in a hypothetical rematch between between Trump and Biden, none would take Trump back.

Rich Thau and Matt Steffee

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.
Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.