_ Richard Hanania, president, Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. New York, 7. December 2022.*
Understanding the Florida governor’s interventions in school board races and his appeal as a politician.
Conservatives have finally woken up to the importance of changing the education system. Opposition to teaching children left-wing dogma on race, gender, and sexuality unites the Right, but politicians have historically been expected to do little about the problem and have delivered even less. Ron DeSantis seems like an exception, and has developed a reputation for “getting things done.” Given that betting markets as of this writing favor him to win the Republican nomination in 2024, this essay seeks to investigate how big of an impact DeSantis has had in one policy area: remaking K-12 education through intervening in school board races. Even if he doesn’t end up on a presidential ticket, any successes that have been achieved in Florida could potentially be a model for other governors going forward.
I focus on K-12 education because this is an easy political issue that I think all sensible people should be united on. If you’re going to select a sanitation commissioner, his views on gender identity matter less than his technical competence. This is the values-competence tradeoff that populists and social conservatives should worry about, even if they often don’t. Education is not the same, as it’s basically glorified daycare, so the most rational things for parents to worry about are that the schools stay open, their kids are not smothered and degraded behind masks, and they don’t teach them crazy ideas about topics like race and sexuality. Conservatives have been on the right side of each of these issues, so anything they can do to remove wokes and covid hysterics from power and replace them with anti-wokes and non-covid hysterics is unambiguously good. And in this area, DeSantis appears to have had an unusual level of success.
The Square Footage Fallacy
Our electoral system makes it easy to get an exaggerated sense of conservative power. Here’s a funny meme that Trump tweeted out in October 2019, making it look like he had the support of an overwhelming majority of the population.
The number of counties Trump won has been used to question Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Obviously, the point of a democracy is not to win over surface area. Los Angeles County has over 10 million people. Robertson County, Kentucky, which Trump won in 2020 by 55 points, has around 2,000. When discussing election results, analysts will often determine how a party did by calculating the number of governorships or state legislatures it won. As with county analysis in presidential elections, that can give one a distorted picture of who actually wields power.
This is important in the context of thinking about education issues in particular, since so much gets decided at the county level. If you hear that conservatives have taken over a school board in America County and purged all the trans activists and CRT scholars, you need to at least do a google search to understand how big America County is. Often, both the Right and Left have an incentive to exaggerate the importance of small local battles – conservatives because they want to seem effective, the media because it loves the narrative of the country being on the cusp of a fascist takeover.
Saying conservatives can’t win over metropolitan areas is just another way of saying conservatives can’t win over people, since that’s where most of them live in a modern developed nation. Little wonder that a party that has lost the popular vote 7 out of the last 8 times prefers to count by square footage.
Florida’s Big Ten Counties
Together, the top ten most populated counties in Florida have about 13.1 million people, which make up about 60% of the state’s 21.8 million. Instead of focusing on 67 counties, by looking at only 10 we can get insight into the majority of the state. Moreover, we can assume that many of the smaller counties are rural and conservative, so not the most at risk of woke indoctrination. Large counties are both where the people are, and where the problems of mask mandates and Critical Race Theory are to be found.
According to population density maps of Florida, predictably, people are found mostly on the east and west coasts of the state. Below is a county-by-county analysis of 2022 school board election results and the aftermath in Big Ten counties.
- Miami-Dade County (2.7 million)
In Miami-Dade County, there are 9 members of the school board. DeSantis flipped one seat, but has appointed two other members, one of which was re-elected. He therefore went two-for-two in endorsements, and his allies control 3 out of 9 seats.
- Broward County (1.9 million)
Interestingly, earlier this year DeSantis remade the Broward school board without ever having to win an election. He suspended four members and appointed their replacements following the recommendations of a grand jury formed in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland shooting. That made five members of the school board total who had been DeSantis appointees – he had previously appointed another one when a different seat opened up – and they therefore had a one vote majority with which they fired the superintendent, who had been into covid restrictions. Now the four more recent DeSantis appointees are gone, and as far as I can tell the board is once again run by liberals, who might bring the superintendent back.
- Palm Beach County (1.5 million)
Palm Beach County is very gay, and it appears DeSantis didn’t even try to flip the school board, not endorsing any candidates. There were three seats open, and conservatives lost each race. No good news here.
- Hillsborough County (1.5 million)
- Orange County (1.4 million)
DeSantis did not endorse any candidates in Orange County. A Moms for Liberty candidate did win her race though.
- Duval County (1 million)
- Pinellas County (960,000)
DeSantis didn’t endorse anyone in Pinellas County, but two candidates aligned with Moms for Liberty won their races.
- Lee County (790,000)
- Polk County (750,000)
DeSantis won the one race in which he endorsed a candidate.
- Brevard County (620,000)
Moms for Liberty won one race here, defeating a Democrat-backed candidate. DeSantis endorsed a different candidate, and he also won. Conservatives are apparently in a strong enough position to have recently gotten rid of the superintendent.
Sarasota County (450,000 people) also went majority conservative, with DeSantis going three-for-three there.
This website shows a list of all the DeSantis endorsements with the results. As noted, the top ten counties contain 60% of the population. Of DeSantis’ 30 candidates, only 11, or just over a third, were in one of those counties. Nonetheless, Republicans need to take what they can get here, and having 3 out of 9 seats in Miami-Dade is impressive. While he might not have been able to win any seats in Broward County, it’s a good sign that when DeSantis had an opportunity to remake the board, he appointed members who were each willing to take the step of firing the pro-mask superintendent. Five-out-of-five solid appointments is a very good record.
After the midterms, conservatives now have control of school boards in Duval County (1 million people, conservative majority), Lee County (790,000, conservative chair and vice chair), and, looking beyond the Big Ten, Sarasota County (450,000, conservative majority).
Conservatives have some representation in Miami-Dade (at least 3 out of 9 seats, 2.7 million), Hillsborough County (at least 2 out of 9, 1.5 million), Orange County (at least 1 out of 8, 1.4 million), Pinellas County (at least 2 out of 7, 960,000), Polk County (at least 1 out of 7, 750,000), and Brevard County (at least 2 out of 5 and enough to fire the superintendent, 620,000).
Conservatives appear to be shut out of Broward County (1.9 million) and Palm Beach County (1.5 million).
These are all rough estimates that use crude proxies to measure conservative influence on school boards. Based on the information above, we can estimate that:
- 10% of the state is conservative controlled in Big Ten counties plus Sarasota
- 33% live in Big Ten counties in which conservatives have some representation
- 16% live in Big Ten counties with no conservative representation (Broward and Palm Beach)
- 40% live in non-Big Ten counties, presumably overwhelmingly conservative and not in need of intervention from DeSantis and Moms for Liberty.
In sum, DeSantis has pretty much fought liberals to a draw in highly populated counties, which is practically unheard of for a Republican in 2022.
All of this is in addition to power exercised by the state government itself. For example, DeSantis banned all mask mandates, and although he had to fight Broward County through the courts on this, he eventually won. A judge has ruled against the Stop WOKE Act, but the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which literally just says don’t teach gender theory to third graders, has been upheld. If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s that for conservatives to get their way on social issues, they need practically everything: the state government, the local school boards, and the courts. Or at least two out of three. It’s practically unimaginable that a conservative county would defy a liberal governor on anything, and this is partly because they’re usually too small to have the resources to challenge a state in court. But the judiciary moved right during the Trump era, and DeSantis’ personal electoral success in addition to his interventions in school board races seem to have given conservatives a fighting chance in at least one large state.
Judging this record to a large extent depends on the model one has of how school boards work. How much does it matter that DeSantis now has 3 out of 9 seats in Miami-Dade County? Do the conservatives just get outvoted on each substantial issue? Or do they exert a major influence on the body, holding other members accountable and steering the agenda in the direction they want? Here’s an article from someone who has observed school board meetings and come to the conclusion that they’re not really doing all that much, just mindlessly going along with whichever activists or “experts” plop themselves in front of them. If that’s true, a few ideologically motivated individuals can make a huge difference, and this analysis underestimates the DeSantis revolution. If school board members are themselves woke activists, however, then the governor and his allies basically need a majority anywhere they want to make major changes.
Another problem with judging this record is that we don’t know the makeup of school boards before DeSantis and Moms for Liberty got involved. Were conservatives already represented, or is the default for school boards to be controlled by woke zombies? My intuition is that it’s mostly the latter. How seriously one takes covid has been a partisan issue, and schools have been outliers among institutions in how many precautions they have taken, which can probably be explained by the political attitudes of teachers, administrators, and school boards. If the baseline was that pretty much everyone was left wing until DeSantis got involved, him changing things this much in only two election cycles is very impressive.
The Political Miracle
In 2018, DeSantis became governor by 0.4% of the vote. In 2022, he won by almost 20%. What’s impressive about his tenure is that he hasn’t had to tradeoff conservative political victories against smart politics. This is because parental rights is a winning issue. Most people don’t agree with Critical Race Theory, and don’t believe that children should be taught to explore their gender identities in kindergarten. Liberals and the education establishment have been captured by ideologues that are out of touch with the public, particularly parents. That means they are put in an awkward position once challenged on these issues, as when Terry McAuliffe basically told parents they shouldn’t have any say over what happens in schools.
Why haven’t other politicians achieved similar success? I think it’s because conservatism on the school issue is usually tied up with two other, largely unpopular, positions: election denial and an uncompromising pro-life stance. But, if we’re going to be completely honest, it’s hard to say why DeSantis has been so successful. All we know is that Florida voters have been able to observe their governor up close for four years as he’s become a national figure, involved in one high profile fight after another, and over that time period the state has gone from a tossup to reliably Republican. A recent article in The Atlantic makes the case that DeSantis will not wear well once voters get to know him, but his record at home belies this argument. Election results are more valuable evidence than the gut feelings of a journalist and the people he talks to, which in this article includes Rick Wilson.
The fact that this has occurred in diverse, highly populated urban areas makes it all the more impressive. In 2012, Obama won Miami-Dade by 24 points. Trump only lost it by 7 in 2020, and DeSantis won the county by 11 in 2022. In fact, DeSantis only lost 4 out of 67 counties in the entire state, and two of them had fewer than 100,000 votes cast in each.
For the sake of analogy, let’s say you meet a single man and want to determine the probability of him getting a girlfriend in the next year. You might give him an IQ test, measure how tall he is, judge his personality, and come up with a number based on some combination of the data and your gut feelings. Or, you can find out how often he has been in a relationship throughout his life up to this point. The latter information would be a much better guide, as to judge a man’s attractiveness to women based on a model that considers what characteristics they usually find appealing is less useful than just looking at his past record. It’s the same for judging an athlete, or almost anything else. This is why past electoral success is a good predictor of future electoral success, and Republicans were foolish to nominate so many first-time candidates in the last election cycle.
It’s useful to compare DeSantis to Kristi Noem, another governor who some see as a potential presidential candidate. In 2022, she got 217,000 votes, 62% of those cast in her state. For the sake of comparison, DeSantis got 4.6 million, over twenty times more. The Florida governor got more votes in Broward County, which he lost, than Kristi Noem received in all of South Dakota. To put these two in the same bin because they’re both seen as “successful governors” is like saying that the mayor of Chicago is just as politically tested as the mayor of McAllen, Texas.
Republicans could take a gamble on some unproven entity and hope that things work out. They could also go with Trump again, give up on the popular vote completely, and hope that the election is another coin flip that happens to come out in their favor this time. But before they do, Republicans should reflect on the fact that the governor with the most impressive policy record has also been the man who has presided over the most successful state-level political realignment towards the Right in a generation. Opportunities like this don’t come around very often.
Republished from the original publication from the CSPI.