Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Swing Voters: Still Not Into the Anti-Woke Stuff

Maybe don’t bet the house on convincing swing-voters that CRT and trans stuff are the most important issues in the world?
by Rich Thau
April 25, 2023
Swing Voters: Still Not Into the Anti-Woke Stuff
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters review choices before casting their ballots at the Shawmont School polling location on November 8, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

“Anti-woke” politics don’t seem to be working with swing-voters.

In January, I wrote about the confusion over the term “woke” in focus groups with Trump-to-Biden Florida voters.

We found that these moderate constituents of Gov. Ron DeSantis were “meh” on his declaration that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” They weren’t paying much attention, and when shown videos of what he had been saying on the topic, didn’t respond well to his attacking large corporations over “wokeness.”

This month I probed on the topic again, but this time with focus groups of Trump-to-Biden voters in Pennsylvania. We talked to seven Republicans, four Democrats, and three Independents across two sessions on April 11.

The short answer is: The war on woke still isn’t resonating.

There was a bizarre “Who’s on First?” quality to the focus group exchanges when I asked respondents to define the word “woke.”

It happened when Scott, a 49-year-old, Republican-registered Trump-to-Biden voter from Monessen, Pennsylvania, took a stab at defining it. Here’s a slightly-abbreviated version of our exchange:

Me: Scott, what’s the definition of woke?

Scott: Woke is a term that was initiated by right wing media to try to stop the progressive movement under the age of 30, and going against the government and going against corporations to whereas they did not want the upper hand in anything.

Me: Give me a definition, what does it mean? I understand who’s charging [others with] it. What does the word “woke” mean?

Scott: The word woke means that it’s a scare tactic.

Me: [If] I open Merriam-Webster’s dictionary; what’s the definition of woke?

Scott: I don’t think they have one in there yet, but that’s a good question.

Six of the 14 voters could not come up with a definition for woke. Among those who could, the most accurate version came from Jason, 45, from Allison Park, who said, “I think it means awake. And it’s used to say a person or a corporation is awake to social issues and focused on these social issues.”

And Megan, 34, from Halifax, said, “It’s a derogatory term for progressive liberal policy. It’s a nice little catchall term when they talk about pronouns and critical race theory in schools. It’s woke.”

But the problem for anti-woke as a political program goes beyond the inability of swing voters to define it. There are some anti-woke propositions that are fairly popular. But they have been combined with others that are decidedly not. The result is that anti-woke, as a movement, may have overreached.

During this month’s focus groups, we asked respondents whether they agreed with each of these five statements:

A) It’s wrong when books describing scenes of sexual violence and underage sex are used in our classrooms and libraries.

B) Biological boys who identify as trans-females should not be competing in girls’ sports and depriving girls of fundamental fairness in their sports competitions, of spots on sports teams, of playing time during games, and of scholarships.

C) We should prohibit classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade because parents should decide when and how to introduce those subjects to their children. We should not be telling second graders they can choose their gender.

D) We must oppose Critical Race Theory, which teaches our kids to hate our country and hate each other.

E) We must oppose “woke” cities and states that have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and by attacking law enforcement with their “defund the police” movement.

Nearly all 14 agreed with B and C. Yet A, D, and E were duds.

Only three of the 14 thought a candidate expressing these five positions—taken collectively as a group—would be an attractive candidate. The rest said things like this:

  • “If it was worded by the politician that exact way, I would kind of feel like they were taking something that’s actually not such a terrible thing and making it look so sinister.”—JP, 49, Bushkill
  • “I think it’s trying to divide the people, and we really don’t need division in the country right now.”—Ashley, 29, Pittsburgh
  • “It’s very much pandering to a very specific demographic. And I wonder if they’re really thinking those things or if they’re saying them for the votes. And then I also have problems with the whole concept of banning books. I mean, quite honestly, you go by those rules, the Bible should be banned. Read the Old Testament. . . . It screams far, far right, and I’m definitely more of a middle ground girl.”—Katina, 50, Audubon
  • Fahrenheit 451 can be banned; where do you stop? I would rather go with no censorship than to go with, ‘Oh, well, I think these things should be censored,’ because where does it stop at?”—Neill, 47, Carlisle
  • “I really feel like the politician should focus on things that actually matter to their constituents. And I really feel like they’re kind of going up in the weeds with this kind of stuff and maybe should really take a civics class and understand politics a little bit better.”—Joey, 44, Kingston
  • “I just think some of the views are just a little too far to the right for my taste. They’re far right wing talking points. Nobody ever defunded the police. It never even really went through.”—Scott, 49, Montessen

One other thing finding: Among the three respondents who said they’d find a politician who took all five positions attractive, they didn’t think that these issues mattered much.

Note this exchange with Mike, 41, from Bridgeport:

Me: Mike, what’s attractive about this politician? Why would you want to learn more about him?

Mike: Because those are just social issues that I slightly care about. And then I’d have to see what are his fiscal policies. Cause that’s obviously just as important, or even probably more important, honestly. I hate to say it.

Me: So explain this to me. If comes down to this person having policies that you like but an economic policy that you’re not particularly happy with, do you still vote for this guy?

Mike: In the economy we’re in now? I probably would lean towards the more economic stuff because that’s kind of more my concern. I mean, I’m not going to be too worried about girls’ sports if I don’t have a job and if I can’t afford to put gas in my car. Those are going to be top of mind. So that other stuff is nice to think about, but it’s kitchen table issues first, and then we’ll get around to the other stuff later.

The anti-woke platform may play well with Republican base voters. But come the general election in 2024, it’s hard to see combating wokeness driving vote choice.

Rich Thau

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.