Everything you need to know about Ron DeSantis 4:31

(CNN) -- When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered his first speech as a presidential hopeful in Iowa, what he said in the first 15 minutes succinctly anticipated how Republicans could defeat President Joe Biden next year.

The next 30 minutes of DeSantis' speech, however, demonstrated how Biden could survive despite all doubts about his performance and capabilities.

DeSantis spent the first part of his speech — delivered at an evangelical church outside Des Moines — highlighting all the vulnerabilities on issues like inflation and the border that have suppressed Biden's job approval ratings since late summer 2021.

But then DeSantis spent the next half hour detailing an ambitious, thorough, and aggressively conservative agenda on social issues (such as banning abortion after the first six weeks and removing books from classrooms and school libraries). Those messages thrilled his right-leaning audience, but they risk alienating many of the undecided voters who have turned away from former President Donald Trump, particularly in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas of battleground states.

After the first section of DeSantis' speech, many undecided voters might have nodded their heads in agreement with his view against Biden's America; after the second section, many of those same voters might have questioned whether they want to live in the America DeSantis promises.


In that way, DeSantis' first step through Iowa showed why Republicans are still not assured of the 2024 election, after a dynamic that dashed their hopes of a radical "red wave" in 2022.

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A central reason Republicans didn't get the results they — or many experts — hoped for in 2022 is that an unusually large number of voters disenchanted with Biden and/or dissatisfied with the economy voted for Democrats anyway, largely because they considered Republican alternatives too extreme.

Many strategists from both parties believe that dynamic is more likely to repeat itself in 2024 if the GOP nominates Trump. But DeSantis' first appearance as an aspiring presidential candidate showed how he, too, could face the same threat if he wins the nomination.

Criticism of Biden on issues like inflation, the border and crime "is really good for undecided voters; these are things that the average right-leaning independent voter will look for," said Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a Republican group critical of Trump. "But in trying to overcome Trump's Make America Great Again, DeSantis is in danger of finding himself in the same category as Trump in relation to those undecided voters who won't like an abortion ban from six weeks of pregnancy and who won't like his relentless approach to the cultural battle. Said.

The fight between Trump and DeSantis for the presidential nomination 3:34

Republicans sympathetic to DeSantis argue that if he makes it to the general election, his criticism of Biden (the first section of his speech) will prove far more relevant to swing voters than the second part (the social agenda he emphasizes for Republican primary voters).

"DeSantis right now is targeting a primary audience, so he emphasizes the parts of his record that appeal to Republican voters and contrast with Trump," says Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who supports DeSantis. "But his record and his results in economics, education and simply running a government competently and efficiently without runaway spending and inflation of the Biden years appeal to undecided voters."

But, like Longwell, many Democrats believe that if DeSantis wins the Republican nomination, he will be providing Biden with what he needs to repeat the unusual feat Democrats accomplished in 2022: convincing large numbers of voters to make their decision based not only on their view of what Biden has done with power. but also what Republicans would do with it.

"Instead of articulating a vision that expands his electorate, he is articulating a DeSantOpian vision of a country where freedoms and rights are at risk," said veteran Democratic communications strategist Jesse Ferguson, mixing the Florida governor's name with the sci-fi concept of a tenuous, decadent future dystopia.

One reason Democrats managed to minimize the typical early vote losses in the midterm elections of the party that occupied the White House in 2022 is that an unusually large percentage of voters who said they were disenchanted with Biden or dissatisfied with the economy voted for candidates from their party anyway. Typically, voters unhappy with the president largely seek candidates from the party outside the White House.

Exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations, including CNN, found that Biden's approval rating among voters in 2022 was almost exactly as low (44%) as Trump's (45%) in the 2018 election, when the GOP suffered far more losses in the House.

Republican House candidates in 2022, like Democrats in 2018, swept voters who said they strongly disapproved of the president's performance, or considered the economy to be in "bad shape," the worst rating available, according to exit polls. But the GOP fared far less among voters who were more modestly discontented.

In 2018, about two-thirds of voters who said they disapproved "somewhat" of Trump's performance voted for Democrats in House elections, according to exit polls. But surprisingly, in 2022 exit polls found Democrats beat Republicans among voters who disapproved somewhat of Biden. Equally striking, nearly two-fifths of voters who described the economy as "not so good" preferred Democrats by a margin of nearly 30 percentage points. Voters with that grim view of the economy, by contrast, had voted decisively against the president's party in 2018.

Ron DeSantis with Donald Trump.

The same pattern persisted across the states. Democrats won elections to the Senate, governor or both in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even though Biden's approval rating in exit polls did not exceed 46% in any of them, and he also easily won the governorship in Michigan, where he stood at 48%. At least two-thirds of voters said they didn't want Biden to run again in each of those states where there was such a question in exit polls. And in all of those states, too, there were large majorities who said they thought the economy was fair or bad.

Such sentiments typically spell ruin for the party occupying the White House. For many voters, however, these concerns were outweighed by resistance to the Republican alternative. Most tellingly, independent voters were much more likely in exit polls to say they considered the GOP too extreme than to describe Democrats that way, according to analysis of the results provided by CNN's polling unit. Support for legalizing abortion and concerns about Republicans as a threat to democracy crystallized that verdict on the GOP, and proved to be a counterattack to discontent over the economy and Biden's far more powerful performance than most agents of either party expected.

The verdict on Biden and the economy hasn't improved much, if at all, since then. His approval rating in most polls remains stuck at around 40%. Large majorities consistently say in polls that they doubt he has the mental and physical capacity to handle another term and that they don't want him to run again. In a recent CNN national poll conducted by SRSS, nearly three-quarters of independents said a Biden re-election would be a "setback" or even a "disaster" for the country. And, despite booming job growth under his administration, Americans remain mostly highly critical of the state of the economy, largely because of concerns about inflation.

DeSantis forcefully evoked all those doubts in the first section of his launch speech last week. He alleged that "our southern border has collapsed" and that "the Biden administration is doing everything it can to make it harder for the average family to make ends meet." He said that "Biden is deliberately trying to turn our energy production upside down" and that "American cities have been hollowed out by rising crime due to weak and ideological policies that intentionally allow criminals to roam the streets." Like generations of governors before him who sought the presidency (from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush), DeSantis framed himself as an outsider and criticized "elites of the political class who ignore the concerns of the American people."

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At the time, with only a brief detour to the Fox News speech (swift denunciations of "medical authoritarianism" and "cultural Marxism"), DeSantis had made the critique of the Biden presidency that any Republican presidential candidate would offer.

But DeSantis didn't stop there. He touted a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy that he signed in Florida and said he had "strengthened Second Amendment rights" by passing legislation allowing anyone to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. He recounted his crusade to ban an alphabet soup of familiar targets in conservative media: DEI, ESG and CRT. A little defensive, he praised Florida legislation that has allowed opposing parents to more easily force the removal of books from classrooms and school libraries, insisting that such policies did not amount to banning books. She described at length her efforts to restrict classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity and pledged to prevent transgender girls from competing in women's sports. And he was victorious in his ongoing fight against the Walt Disney Company.

Many Democratic strategists believe that, as in the 2022 election, resistance to the breadth and intensity of this social agenda will outweigh concerns about Biden for a critical portion of undecided voters.

"The DeSantis campaign and all Republican primaries are now about appealing to this narrow, very extreme and very aligned base of a party to win the nomination no matter what it does to their brand when it comes to winning the general election," Ferguson argued.

Similarly, Longwell believes that while DeSantis would have a chance to moderate his message in a general election and benefit from the age contrast with Biden, Florida's governor is identifying with such a polarizing agenda in the primaries that it may permanently alienate voters he would need to win in November. "The problem for Republicans in general can be summed up in the fact that the gap between what grassroots voters demand and what undecided voters will tolerate has become very wide," he said. "It's an almost impassable chasm. It's too wide," he added.

Many Republicans don't see as much vulnerability in the broad social agenda that DeSantis — and most other Republican contenders — have embraced heading into the general election.

One reason, Republicans argue, is that the eventual nominee will likely talk less about these issues in a general election. David Kochel, a longtime Iowa-based GOP strategist, said that in part because "you have a conservative media ecosystem that focuses" on these cultural battle struggles, candidates have no choice but to lean on them right now.

Kochel agrees that the eventual nominee cannot "erase a sketch" from his keynote remarks, a reference to a Mitt Romney adviser's famous claim in 2012 that the candidate, after winning the 2012 Republican nomination, could simply wipe the slate clean and remake his image for the general election. But, Komel added, "it also doesn't mean you have the same basic message" in primary and general elections "for what are functionally two different elections focused on two different audiences." The eventual nominee, he predicted, will successfully shift the focus of the general election back to Biden's record, in part because the media is likely to highlight those kinds of questions again.

Democrats doubt that DeSantis — let alone Trump — can shed his identity as a culture battle warrior in a general election and keep voters focused primarily on whether he can manage the economy or the border better than Biden. DeSantis in "his tenure as governor and in his campaign for president has doubled, tripled and quadrupled these extreme notions so much that he cannot push to undo them before the public," argued Ferguson, who served as communications director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016.

The other reason many Republicans say they're less concerned that DeSantis identifies so unreservedly with a conservative social primary agenda is that they believe he can help — not hurt — a general election. Polls show majority public support for some of the specific initiatives he has championed in Florida, including banning talking about sexual orientation and gender identity in the early grades and banning transgender girls from competing in high school sports.

But most Democrats believe that, taken together, DeSantis' social agenda will prove less popular than the sum of its individual parts. They believe many undecided voters, particularly college-educated suburbanites who left the Republican Party in the Trump years, will see what he calls "parental rights" as bigotry. "In general, being on the side of banning things is bad," said Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch.

DeSantis' first speech in Iowa offered a Rorschach test moment for this debate: Arguably his biggest applause in the hour-long appearance came when he declared that Florida will now not only strip licenses from doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors, but send them to prison. That statement lit up the room, but it's likely to horrify the vast majority of voters beyond the Republican base "who don't want to jail doctors, period," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for Biden in 2020. "They're going too far."

President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the White House on June 2, 2023. Jim Watson/Pool/Getty Images

Lake predicts that undecided voters will recoil not only at the essence of DeSantis' cultural offensive, but also at the aggressive rhetorical style in which he presents it. "It's divisive, it's intimidating," he said. "It's not what women want, in particular."

Many twists are certain before the Republican Party decides on its nominee. Some Democrats worry that even if DeSantis wins the nomination on a staunchly conservative social agenda, the very act of dethroning Trump will defend him from the Democratic argument that he represents another form of Trumpism; much like how Biden's victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020 shielded the president from Republican accusations that he was a "socialist."

But the basic dynamic framed by DeSantis' opening speech in Iowa will weigh heavily in the race on any stage. Beset by all the difficult domestic conditions highlighted by DeSantis, Biden is likely to fight until November 2024 to affirmatively convince the majority that his performance deserves another term. And yet, the president could win that mandate anyway if the majority is unwilling to entrust the nation to the Republican alternative.

Lake says that while it is difficult in our highly polarized era for Biden, or any president, to achieve and maintain approval from at least 50% of the country, that traditional criterion is no longer a prerequisite for re-election. Setting an important scoreboard, he argues that Biden "doesn't need" majority approval to win in 2024: "He just has to have greater favorability than his opponent."

Which means that whoever the GOP nominee is, Biden will have to make the America of abortion bans and book bans that DeSantis outlined in the second section of his Iowa speech scare more voters than the portrait of open borders and raging inflation that the Florida governor painted in the first section.

ElectionsJoe BidenDonald Trump NewsRon DeSantis