Ron DeSantis is set to join the 2024 campaign amid high Republican hopes that he’s precisely the kind of conservative who can knock off President Joe Biden. But the odds are stacked against him.
The problem isn’t really Biden, or even former President Donald Trump, who leads the Florida governor in early GOP polls. It’s his state and the weight of history.
No Florida politician has ever been elected president. A half-dozen have run in the last 50 years — essentially the period in which the state evolved from political backwater to electoral powerhouse — but all have ended up in the same place, dead in the water long before the nominating convention. Most never even made it past New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
The curse of Florida Man — and to date, every Florida presidential candidate has been male — lingers despite the fact that the state is an ideal proving ground for a White House bid. Winning statewide office requires campaigning in two time zones, 10 TV markets, and across 66,000 square miles. It is home to more than 22 million people — many of them arrivals from other states, which gives Florida politicians exposure to a wide range of political customs and styles.
It’s a curious predicament for the nation’s third-largest state. Florida does have some White House connections, of course. Presidents have retired there. They’ve owned vacation homes there. Trump himself moved there midway through his first term as president, changing his official residence from Manhattan to Palm Beach.
But in the nearly 180 years since Florida was admitted to the Union, it has neither produced a president nor had one born within its borders. (No, Andrew Jackson’s pre-statehood stint doesn’t count.) It is the lone state among the nation’s 10 most populous that has never sent anyone to the White House.
Texas, which became a state nine months after Florida, can point to three presidents — four, if you count Dwight Eisenhower, who was born in Denison. California, which achieved statehood five years after Florida, has produced two. Even Hawaii, the last state to be admitted to the Union in 1959, can boast a presidential pedigree, with the birthplace of Barack Obama.
The absence of Florida’s presidential bragging rights shouldn’t be a complete surprise. It stems, at least in part, from the low esteem in which Florida — and its politicians — were held for the first century of its existence and perhaps beyond.
When the writer John Gunther took stock of the nation and its politics in the 1940s for his panoramic book, Inside U.S.A., he noted that Florida’s “freakishness in everything from architecture to social behavior [is] unmatched in any American state.”
“Sometimes people compare California to Florida,” Gunther wrote of the nation’s sun-drenched states, “but from an intellectual point of view, there is no comparison.”
At mid-century, V.O. Key, Jr., in his political science classic, Southern Politics, observed that Florida was a politically atomized and unorganized state, “an incredibly complex mélange of amorphous factions,” with few politicians who could exert influence beyond their own county.
Florida, he wrote, “is not only unbossed, it is also unled.”
By the 1970s, though, that began to change. Decade after decade of runaway population growth had swelled the state’s population; in the 1950s alone, Florida’s population nearly doubled in size. State constitutional revisions in 1968 finally enabled governors to serve more than one term. Not long after, the state started producing top homegrown talent, from both parties, and sending them to the national dance.
In a sign that Florida had finally arrived politically — no longer viewed as a dumber, more corrupt version of California — both parties held their conventions in Miami Beach in 1972.
The Democratic National Convention’s keynote speaker that year was Reubin Askew, Florida’s highly regarded New South governor. By 1984, after eight years as governor and a stint as U.S. trade representative, he would become the first Florida pol to make a serious run for president. Running as “a different kind of Democrat” in a crowded field, Askew’s longshot presidential bid didn’t get very far. He finished dead last among the major Democratic candidates, with 1 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and dropped out the next day.
Askew wasn’t the only Floridian to run that year. In true only-in-Florida fashion, the incumbent he defeated to win the governorship in 1970, former Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, filed for the New Hampshire primary just minutes before the 5 p.m. filing deadline — as a Democrat.
It had been 14 years since the mercurial Kirk — who once described himself as a “tree-shaking son of a bitch” — lost his bid for reelection to Askew. The political rust showed: Kirk won just 24 votes in the entire state.
The next Florida heavyweight to make a White House bid was Democrat Bob Graham in 2004. Widely regarded as one of the best governors in state history, Graham had also served three terms in the Senate, where he served as Intelligence Committee chair and led the congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks.
As a popular officeholder in a politically important state, Graham figured to be a formidable contender. But a damaged heart valve required surgery in early 2003, unexpectedly delaying his entry into the contest. He never caught up to his rivals and left the race in October, three months before the Iowa caucuses.
The closest any state politician has ever come to winning the presidency came in 2016, when Florida offered up two top-tier Republican candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. Bush began as the overwhelming frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Rubio, at the time, was considered a rising party star with an unlimited future.
Neither was prepared to deal with Trump’s sudden and unexpected rise. Weighed down by his establishment ties and the family name, Bush was cut to pieces by the billionaire mogul’s campaign buzzsaw. After an underwhelming performance in South Carolina, he suspended his campaign the next day.
Rubio went further, becoming the first Florida candidate to make it through the early state gantlet. But his campaign ended in mid-March, after he got plastered by Trump — in his home state, of all places. Rubio lost all but one of the Sunshine State’s 67 counties.
Now, with Trump and DeSantis running first and second in the early 2024 GOP presidential polls, Florida again has a prime opportunity to place a resident in the White House.
But DeSantis is still running against Florida’s reputation as a gun-shaped anti-paradise of grifters, rejects and assorted weirdos that — fairly earned or not — just won’t die. The Florida Man meme didn’t arrive in 2013 out of nowhere, after all. Look at all the popular media that has helped reinforce the state’s lurid caricature: “Cops,” the true-crime show “48 Hours,” a library shelf of wacky Carl Hiaasen novels (not to mention his many imitators). Florida produces plenty of things besides viral headlines — sugar, oranges and exceptional winter strawberries, to name a few exports. But above all, it is a place where people go to escape, to play (and misbehave). And that deliberate unseriousness has, like it or not, settled upon its politicians who don’t get the same respect as those from states whose identities are built around more traditional industries.
Trump’s connection to the state is, of course, more tenuous. And his view of his adopted state isn’t exactly rosy. In a March attack on DeSantis, Trump raised the notion that Florida was the kind of backward place that its critics deride and which regularly delights the internet.
Trump contended that Florida ranked among the worst states in terms of Covid cases and Covid deaths. And that wasn’t all. “In Education, Florida ranks among the worst in the Country and on crime statistics, Florida ranked Third Worst in Murder, Third Worst in Rape, and Third Worst in Aggravated Assault,” the Mar-a-Lago resident said in a statement.
“Jacksonville was ranked as one of the Top 25 Major Crime Cities in the Country, with Tampa and Orlando not doing much better. On Education, Florida ranks #39 in Health & Safety in the Country, #50 in Affordability, and #30 in Education & Childcare, HARDLY GREATNESS THERE!”
A true Florida Man’s endorsement.
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