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A Floridian as president? Trump and DeSantis each vie to be first

Florida has long been influential in national politics. But Americans have never picked a Floridian to lead as president.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Freedom Summit on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Freedom Summit on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 6, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida governor wins reelection by record numbers and later finds himself running as a party conservative in a crowded presidential primary. In New Hampshire, he tip-toes around the explosive abortions rights issue, discusses ongoing Israeli military operations, promises he’ll secure the Mexican border and warns that the current administration’s fiscal insanity will cause more inflation, not reduce it.

While it sounds like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2023, this was former Florida Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew in 1984. Askew dropped out of the race after finishing eighth in New Hampshire. DeSantis is looking to avoid a similar fate as he prepares for the third GOP debate this week in his home state.

If DeSantis or former President Donald Trump eventually is elected president next year, it would be the first time Americans have chosen a Floridian to lead them. Trump was a New York snowbird with a second home in Palm Beach when he was first elected, but he later lost as a full-time Floridian.

So while Florida is home to Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, that’s not the place to look for representation from the nation’s third-largest state. And even if home court advantage gives DeSantis an opening to talk about his accomplishments in the Sunshine State, there’s no historic evidence to suggest it will help him in the race itself.

“I really have no idea why this is the case,” said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was considered the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential primary before Trump’s ascent reshaped the party.

Florida has long been influential in national politics — never more so than in 2000 when there were five weeks of recounts and court challenges before George W. Bush carried the state and won the presidency, by 537 votes. And more and more Floridians have sought the presidency as its population has exploded and Republicans chased Democrats out of power in Tallahassee.

Early in the 2016 presidential cycle, many political observers thought former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio would win the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump at first wasn’t taken seriously by either campaign — until he blasted both of the Floridians with insults as he rose to the top of the GOP pile.

It wasn’t the moment for either. Bush would have been the third member of his family to become president, and Trump’s nickname of “Low Energy Jeb” seemed to stick at a time when voters were in no mood for an establishment candidate with a whiff of inevitability, maybe even entitlement.

Rubio brought youthful energy to the campaign, but he never found his footing against a brawling candidate who specialized in branding and dubbed him “Little Marco.” Rubio tried to match Trump with branding of his own, taunting Trump about the size of his hands at one point, but the shift in strategy only seemed to diminish him further — and by then Trump was well on his way to the GOP nomination.

By 2020, Trump had become a Floridian himself, changing his residence and voter registration to Florida, a state he desperately needed to win to earn a second term in the White House. He did carry the state but lost to President Joe Biden in the Rust Belt, thus adding his name to the list of Floridians who lost a presidential bid. That list keeps growing but includes Askew, Bush, Rubio, and former Sen. Bob Graham.

There is another notable asterisk. President Andrew Jackson was the first territorial governor of Florida in 1821, but it was a short stint to keep him busy as he tried to retire. It’s described as “a troublesome few months” before he returned home to Tennessee and eventually ran for the White House from the Volunteer State.

“If you track Jackson’s progress towards being a presidential candidate, Florida has very, very little to do with it,” said Daniel Feller, a Jackson historian and professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee. “Florida didn’t do much damage to his national reputation, but it certainly didn’t help it any.”

Politics were decidedly different then anyway. Jackson basically took the job as a favor to President James Monroe after the U.S. took over the territory from Spain.

“It was understood from the very beginning between Jackson and Monroe that this was going to be a temporary appointment,” said Feller, noting Jackson’s wife wasn’t a fan of the idea. “Jackson didn’t think Rachel would like it very much and he was right about that. Rachel hated it.”

Florida had a sparse population when it became a state in 1845. The federal census five years earlier counted fewer than 55,000 people, nearly half of whom were African American slaves. It wasn’t until air conditioning became more affordable and effective in the middle of the 20th century that the state’s population started to grow.

That changed in a hurry, though. It more than doubled from fewer than 2 million in 1940 to more than 5 million in 1960 and hasn’t stopped growing. And its demographics shifted from a Southern, agricultural state to a hodgepodge population more reflective of the nation as a whole.

While north Florida and the Panhandle remain largely Southern in their outlook, the rest of the state is an eclectic mix.

Immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and other Latin American countries have a large presence in South Florida, Central Florida has a large Puerto Rican population, conservative Midwesterners have moved to the southwest Gulf Coast in droves and liberal New Englanders have migrated to the southeast Atlantic Coast. There’s plenty of intermingling between those groups, but a large majority of the state’s population was born outside of Florida.

As the population has changed, the state’s politics have shifted. What had been the key swing state in 2000 has been reliably Republican in the past two presidential contests.

Democrats dominated the state Legislature for decades, but Republicans’ power has grown steadily this century. Democrats always had an advantage in voter registration until two years ago. Now Republicans have about 5.2 million registered voters compared to about 4.6 million Democrats.

The GOP has easily held the Legislature and governor’s office since 1999. While Republicans continue to be unstoppable in state politics, the state has been less predictable in presidential years. Since the 2000 recount, it supported Bush for reelection, Barack Obama twice and Trump twice.

Trump is once again leading in Florida polls. While he won’t participate in Wednesday’s debate in Miami, he is holding a rally nearby in a city that’s 95% Hispanic or Latino, a signal he’s seeking to boost support with the state’s Hispanic voters.

The one sure bet is that Floridians will keep trying to win the White House. If neither DeSantis nor Trump win in 2024, there’s always 2028 and the possibility Rubio and DeSantis run again, perhaps joined by former governor and current Sen. Rick Scott, who has long been speculated to have presidential ambitions.

Former Republican strategist Rick Wilson of Florida, who worked on the presidential campaigns of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said the state has been a political late bloomer on the national scene.

“Florida is a state that didn’t really reach its political maturity as early as others,” said Wilson, a founder of the Lincoln Project, which opposes both Trump and DeSantis. “We had a much longer puberty where we were a backwater.”

That all could change soon enough.

“The money’s here, the importance of the vote is here, the importance of the electoral college is here,” he said. “Now we need somebody who actually has the skills.”

By BRENDAN FARRINGTON Associated Press