As the nation's population moved south and west after World War II, Florida emerged as one of the most influential states in the nation. In the last four presidential elections alone, Florida has been the most important swing state in the nation, and it is projected to be among the five most important in 2012.
And yet the Sunshine State has failed to put forward a single presidential nominee or seen one of its own elected to the presidency during this era.
Texas by contrast claims four U.S. presidents since World War II — Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush.
Whether Texas can rightfully claim four presidents (Ike only lived there for the first two years of his life, and both Bushes were born elsewhere) is debatable. What is not debatable are the enormous economic and political benefits that have accrued to the Lone Star state as a result of these four presidents. Major developments in space (Houston and Mission Control for example), technology, education, and medicine could not have been realized without these presidents, despite Rick Perry's claims to the contrary.
So how is it that Texas has been able to claim a record share of U.S. presidents, while Florida remains the largest state never to produce one?
To some extent Texans were in the right place at the right time. Lyndon Johnson was vice president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It seems certain that he could not have been elected in his own right without Kennedy's premature death. George Herbert Walker Bush came in on the coattails of Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in recent history. And young George inherited both the family name and an extremely powerful campaign organization.
Texas politics has also benefited from the enormous oil wealth that was discovered in East Texas at the turn of the 20th century and the massive migration into the state that made it, in some ways, a microcosm of the nation. That growth and massive wealth enabled Texans to launch national campaigns from Austin.
Florida was by contrast the smallest state in the South up to World War II and also one of the poorest states in the nation. Neither party looked to Florida for national leaders or much else.
The national political aspirations of Florida's governors were further curbed by a single four-year term in office that limited their ability to build a state and regional following. Moreover, the persistence of segregation and racial violence after World War II undermined efforts of state leaders to mount a serious presidential campaign outside the region, where racism had declined dramatically in the postwar era.
Coincidentally, the term limits for state governors and segregation gave way in the late 1960s when the federal government and courts ended segregation and the new state Constitution of 1968 allowed governors to serve two consecutive terms in office.
As the state modernized and its population boomed after 1970 (10.5 million people entered the state between 1970 and 2005), Florida emerged on to the national landscape. In the process it produced a series of major political figures, four of whom — Govs. Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham and Jeb Bush — were mentioned as serious presidential contenders. Askew and Graham subsequently campaigned for the Democratic nomination during this period, but their campaigns lacked the financial backing and organization that their Texas colleagues enjoyed.
Florida's increasing prominence and the size and diversity of its population now make it a place that the national parties regularly look to for presidential candidates. Much like Virginia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and Ohio in the late 19th and 20th centuries, Florida, together with Texas and California, is uniquely positioned to produce viable national candidates today.
While size and state influence are often crucial, being in the right place at the right time also matters. The elections of Lyndon Johnson and George Herbert Walker Bush are recent cases in point. Conversely, the presidential candidacy of Jeb Bush has been hampered at this time by his name. The memory of his brother's administration and public concerns about dynasties in America make what would normally be a strong candidacy problematic.
So we may have to wait another four to eight years before Florida has a candidate who can vie for the presidency.
But even without a candidate, Florida remains pivotal to presidential ambitions. That won't change in 2012.
David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida, presidential historian, and author of From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans (2007).