But before he gets to 2024, he’s got to get through his reelection in 2022. And that means winning votes not only from the Republican base but also the state’s independents and Democrats, after winning in 2018 by less than half a percentage point. He had solid approval ratings earlier this year, but a surge in coronavirus cases certainly seems like the sort of thing that might quickly erode that enthusiasm, particularly given DeSantis’s focus on the issue.
The spike in cases over the past month has been as dramatic as the top-line numbers would suggest. Only two states — Arkansas and Louisiana — are now seeing more new cases per 100,000 residents than Florida. But since Florida’s population is three times that of those two states combined, that means a lot more cases.
On that graph, the states are color-coded by how many residents have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. (The states are broken into four groups, from the least-vaccinated quartile to the most-vaccinated.) This is a key factor, as you might expect, with states that have lower vaccination rates making up a disproportionate number of new coronavirus cases.
That isn’t immediately apparent, to be fair. Over the past month, it’s mostly been the third quartile of states — those just under the median — that has seen the most cases. But in the past week or two, the second quartile has seen the plurality of new cases. Thanks to Florida.
But, again, when looking at share of cases relative to population, lower-vaccinated states stand out. The quartile of states that is least vaccinated is home to 16 percent of Americans — but 23 percent of new cases at this point. The states that are most vaccinated make up only 19 percent of cases despite being home to 29 percent of the population.
This is certainly why DeSantis (along with other Republicans) has made a concerted effort this week to promote vaccinations. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) went so far as to say that residents should “start blaming unvaccinated folks” for the negative effects of the pandemic, an effort to shift the public perception of those taking the virus seriously and of those not.
“There are occasionally some side effects,” DeSantis said, “but if you’re 70 years old, man, the benefit is so much better than worrying about some of that. It’s not even close.”
For any elected leader, but especially a Republican one, vaccines are both a literal and a metaphorical lifeline. As we’ve noted before, DeSantis is in a horserace with other potential 2024 Republican candidates (most particularly South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem) to show how few restrictions they can impose on their state populations. Vaccines potentially allow states to avoid both having to consider containment measures and having to suffer through spikes in new cases.
The idea that containment efforts such as masks and social distancing limits are unacceptable has emerged as a central bit of rhetoric among the right. Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an interview on Fox News on Friday that she would require no mandates for masks or vaccines if her bid for Arkansas governor is successful. With Arkansas seeing the second-most new cases in the country at this point, any state leader making such a pledge is essentially entirely dependent on broad vaccination to keep Arkansans healthy — or to see the state reach broad immunity by rampant spread of the virus.
It’s not certain that Florida is on the latter path. Perhaps more people will get vaccinated quickly. Perhaps there’s enough natural immunity (that is, immunity acquired through past infections) that the spread of the virus will soon slow. But there are still millions of residents who haven’t been vaccinated and only 2.4 million who are known to have already had it. That’s a lot of Floridians who are still at risk.
November 2022 is a long way away. It’s 16 months in the future; 16 months ago, the pandemic had barely begun. But if this is still an issue for Florida by next July or if the state is unusually affected by this new surge in cases, it threatens to shift perceptions of how the governor has done in his first term. And that, just possibly, could affect whether Floridians give him a second one.