In every election cycle, a new kind of mom voter emerges. Sometimes those mythical mothers — soccer moms, security moms, rage moms — represent an actual voting constituency, but other times, they end up being figments of candidates’ imaginations. And in the 2024 Republican primary, it may end up being more of the latter.
In his campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is focusing on a group that could be called “anti-woke” moms, or perhaps “parents’ rights moms.” (Hit me up if you’ve got a better moniker.) “We are going to launch the largest mobilization of moms and grandmothers across the United States of America to protect the innocence of our children and to protect the rights of parents,” DeSantis’s wife, Casey, said at the July launch of her “Mamas for DeSantis” outreach initiative. As the father of three young children, DeSantis has also been folding stories about his kids into his political messages, clearly hoping to tap into conservative parental worries about school overreach and parental control.
The approach sets him apart from candidates like former President Donald Trump, whose fully grown children have children of their own. What’s not clear is whether it will endear him to Republican voters, who have soured on DeSantis since the beginning of the year, when he was close to matching Trump in our national primary polling average. Now, according to the average, Trump is leading DeSantis — his closest rival in the field — by nearly 40 percentage points. And while some Republican parents are worried about the parents’ rights issues that DeSantis and his wife are highlighting, they don’t seem to care all that much, making it more unlikely that this angle will help DeSantis make up the ground he’s lost since the winter.
Over the past couple years, DeSantis has made the issue of parental rights — in children’s education and in health care — a centerpiece of his appeal to conservative voters. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he pushed back on policies that required masking for children, including a 2021 executive order designed to “protect parents’ freedom to choose” whether their kids wear masks. Last year, he signed controversial legislation that bars public school teachers of younger children from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in the classroom, with an option for parents to sue the school district if teachers don’t comply. That law was broadened to include all grades this year, along with a measure banning puberty blockers and other forms of gender-affirming care for minors.
At the core of DeSantis’s argument is the idea that parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their own children is being stripped away by the government — whether it’s via a mask mandate or classroom instruction that doesn’t match their values. And on the surface, it’s not a bad approach. According to a poll conducted in September and October 2022 by the Pew Research Center, Republican parents are more likely than Democratic parents to say that various levels of government have too much influence over what public secondary schools are teaching:
Republicans — particularly Republican dads
— are especially likely to say that the federal government has too much influence, which is perhaps why Casey DeSantis is continuing to talk about mask mandates, even though it’s not an issue that’s popping up as much in parents’ daily lives. (A 2022 Ipsos/NPR poll found that 44 percent of Republican parents say that students and teachers at their child’s school almost never wear masks, up from 2 percent who said this in 2021.) In the opening minute of the video that launched her “Mamas for DeSantis” initiative, children cry as masks are put on their faces by nearby adults. “It’s such a vivid, visceral reminder of the government telling you what your kids can do,” said Laurel Elder, a political science professor at Hartwick College who has written about political appeals to parents.
The problem for DeSantis is that the other issues he’s focusing on — particularly when it comes to what schools are teaching — are less of a pressing concern, even for Republicans. In its 2022 poll, Pew found that majorities of Republican parents (53 percent of dads and 62 percent of moms) are extremely or very satisfied with the overall quality of education their child is receiving at school. Relatively small shares of all parents, regardless of their party affiliation, say they’re not too satisfied with the amount of input they have in what their child learns at school. And when asked about whether the teachers and administrators at their child’s school share their own values, Republican and Democratic parents are virtually indistinguishable: A slim majority of all parent groups say those values are at least somewhat similar to their own.
When pollsters drill down on specific issues related to education and what should be taught in schools, big ideological differences between Republican and Democratic parents do emerge. Pew found that Republican fathers (72 percent) and mothers (63 percent), for example, are much likelier than Democratic parents (23 percent for mothers and fathers) to say they want their child to learn that slavery is part of American history but does not affect the position of Black people in American society today.
What’s missing from the data, though, is a sense that parents are really worried about what their children are being taught. Parents do care about some issues related to their kids’ education — they just aren’t aren’t especially divisive. In an Ipsos/NPR poll conducted May 5-11, Republican parents (69 percent) were almost as likely as Democratic parents (76 percent) to say they were familiar with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, majorities of parents of all political stripes said that teacher shortages had happened in their community recently, while non-parents were much less likely to say they’d heard about that issue in their own community.
There also isn’t clear evidence Republican parents are even hearing about what politicians like DeSantis are doing. According to the 2023 Ipsos/NPR poll, 69 percent of Republican parents agree that teachers are professionals who should be trusted to make decisions about classroom curricula. In that poll, Democratic parents were much more likely than Republican parents to say that they were familiar with schools banning books from classrooms or restrictions on discussions of gender, sexuality, race or racism. And Republican parents were much more likely than Republican non-parents to say that book bans or restrictions on discussions in the classroom had not happened in their community.
Meanwhile, Republican parents may not be all that gung-ho about DeSantis’s solutions. In the 2023 Ipsos/NPR poll, almost half (47 percent) of Republican parents oppose state lawmakers passing laws to ban certain books and remove them from classrooms and libraries, while 41 percent are in favor, and they’re evenly divided on whether they support state lawmakers creating policies to restrict what subjects teachers and students can discuss in the classroom. They’re more in favor of putting that power in the hands of individual school boards (53 percent support letting school boards restrict the subjects that are discussed in the classroom), but not overwhelmingly.
And then there’s the fact that when, in the same poll, parents were asked to choose the topics they find most worrying, only 17 percent of Republicans selected education — less than the share who selected inflation or increasing costs (52 percent), crime or gun violence (28 percent), government budget or debt (28 percent), political extremism or polarization (21 percent), immigration (21 percent) and taxes (21 percent).
The takeaway here, according to Elder, isn’t that appeals to parents are useless politically. “Being a parent is a very powerful identity that can be helpful for politicians if they can tap into it, with almost no downside,” she said. DeSantis’s problem is that the culture-war issues surrounding education just don’t seem to be especially galvanizing for parents, even Republican ones. “Clearly there is a passionate minority of people who are disproportionately Republicans who are energized by this issue,” she said. “But on the whole these are not the issues that parents are concerned about.”