DES MOINES, Iowa — Jill Connell is sick of hearing the word “woke.”
The 66-year-old from Kansas is an undecided Republican voter with a host of concerns about the country, and she knows for sure what doesn’t top that list.
“To me, wokeness is, ‘Hey, I woke up this morning,’” Connell said, employing the most literal definition of a word the right uses to describe what it sees as left-wing ideas and political correctness. “I call it goofy — it’s ridiculous. I’m a person who believes you should love everybody. I’m a person of faith.”
Connell isn’t alone. After almost two years as a conservative rallying cry, Republicans may finally be over the war on woke.
Last week at the Iowa State Fair, the Republican presidential candidates who had relentlessly decried wokeness in the weeks and months prior barely mentioned it by name. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has called wokeness a virus more dangerous than COVID, didn’t talk about it at all. Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur who wrote a manifesto against wokeness in corporate America, used it only a few times in front of crowds.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the emperor of the state where woke goes to die, downplayed his offensive against Disney, his woke foil, mentioning the company only once in a stump speech. As recently as June, he used “woke” seven times in a mere 26 seconds.
And Donald Trump, who complained that no one could define “woke,” was more focused on bashing DeSantis with a snarky message in the sky than pointing out that woke doesn’t sell, an idea that recent polling bears out: For all the attention heaped on bathrooms and hormone replacements, Republican voters consistently respond better to bread-and-butter issues — tax cuts and lowering crime — than calls to ban abortion, outlaw gender therapy for minors and restrict classroom discussion on race, gender and sexuality.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shown here at the Iowa State Fair, has been laying off the word "woke," which he once used in a speech seven times in 26 seconds.
DeSantis seemed to use the word in Iowa more than any other candidate competing for the Republican presidential nomination. But it didn’t pack the same punch it did even just a few months ago, when DeSantis entered the race as a culture-war crusader who framed wokeness as a “mind virus” zombifying the country.
“So your governor [Kim Reynolds] likes to say that both Iowa and Florida are places where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said at a pre-fair campaign stop in Panora, Iowa, on a man-made lake with fake palm trees that resembled a fake Florida shoreline.
“I’ll tell you, as president, we’re gonna leave the woke agenda in the dustbin of history where it belongs,” DeSantis said in a robotic monotone, a line that he’s used plenty of times previously, still generating some whoops and hollers from the crowd.
GOP voters in the nation’s first caucus state, who flocked there to hear from presidential candidates, were torn on woke. On the one hand, they expressed deep concerns about the infusion of ideology they disagree with into the fabric of public life. But they also acknowledged the word can seem pandering coming from a politician.
Tiffany Welch, a 43-year-old undecided voter from Clive, Iowa, who attended the DeSantis event, said talking about wokeness isn’t what will win her vote in the 2024 election. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It’s a non-issue to rile up voters. Nobody can give me a definition of it.”
Therein lies a major problem: While the sentiment of woke is generally understood, what is woke to one may not be woke to another. Wokeness is generally in the eye of the beholder.
“Anger. Dishonesty. Making America not what it is, not what it’s supposed to be,” said Ashley Long, a 33-year-old electrical apprentice wearing a Trump hat at the fair, after pausing for a moment to consider a definition.
I don’t want her to grow up feeling like a victim.Iowa voter Ashley Long on why she doesn't want her daughter exposed to "wokeness"
Long doesn’t want wokeness (a term born of the Black social justice movement) to make her young half-Black daughter feel less than her peers in school.
“I don’t want her to grow up feeling like a victim,” Long said. “We’ve had a half-Black president — we had Barack Obama. She can be president one day.”
Celia Criswell, a 70-year-old retiree from Des Moines, said a Republican candidate needs to be staunchly anti-woke to earn her vote.
But what does it mean to be anti-woke?
“People say, “What’s woke?” I know what woke is, and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who can tell you what woke is, but if you say it out loud, you might get in trouble,” Criswell told me.
I asked Criswell to hit me with her definition anyway.
“Well, I’m not gonna say,” she said.
Criswell eventually linked wokeness to late-term abortion and gender therapy for transgender minors, procedures she strongly opposes and considers to be a litmus test for candidates.
Richard, an Iowan who didn’t want to share his last name after asking a question during longer-than-longshot Perry Johnson’s political soapbox appearance, described wokeness as “trying to change the face of America … they can’t tell who a man or a woman is.”
Although when it comes to choosing a presidential nominee, wokeness, as an voting issue, “it’s not number one,” he said.
Vivek Ramaswamy, once the "anti-woke" entrepreneur, is branding away from woke.
Polling backs up this idea. Faced with the choice of a Republican focused on “defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media and culture” or one focused on “restoring law and order in our streets and at our border,” only 24% of respondents went with the woke candidate as their top choice, versus 65% for law and order, according to a New York Times/Siena College survey.
Just 26% of Republican primary voters thought it was “very important” that a president support limiting the rights of transgender people, compared with 78% who said it was important for the candidate to have a plan to cut taxes, according to a CBS/YouGov poll. And only 14% wanted the 2024 nominee to be someone who would punish businesses for supporting LGBTQ rights, compared to 81% who preferred a candidate who would stay away from the issue.
“It’s not quite falling flat, but it’s just not top of mind,” said Don Levy, the director of the Siena College Research Institute, referring to likely GOP primary voters in Iowa and nationwide and their attitude toward so-called woke ideas.
“If you’re going to associate the woke issue with Gov. DeSantis, to some extent that explains why, when he’s pitted head-to-head against former President Trump, he does as poorly as he does,” Levy said. “It doesn’t seem to be the issue that’s going to be a wellspring of support to move people away from Trump toward DeSantis.”
Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Iowa GOP, said woke is a multi-tentacled issue, with certain aspects that are more resonant for conservative voters.
“What I hear resonate in terms of the woke issue — anything that has the element of parents making decisions. It’s the general idea that parents should be making decisions for kids that aren’t of age at all, that almost transcends the specific issue,” he said, which might explain why DeSantis has made an effort to include his wife and young children more on the campaign trail.
Kaufmann’s remarks underscore the reality that candidates are still discussing anti-woke themes, just not using the buzzword.
Ramaswamy recently rebranded some merchandise to ditch the word completely, The New York Times reported — changing “Stop Wokism” to “Truth,” a word that greets you immediately upon loading the candidate’s website.
Ramaswamy’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment about his relationship with a word that early on defined his candidacy. But he summed up the shift to the Times: “At the time I came to be focused on this issue, no one knew what the word was. Now that they have caught up, the puck has moved. It’s in my rearview mirror as well.”