As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has risen to a very powerful position in the “invisible primary” phase of the 2024 GOP presidential contest, there’s been plenty of theorizing about what makes him so appealing to Republicans. Is it his attacks on allegedly “woke” schools and corporations? His aggressive COVID politics? The perception that he could actually dethrone Donald Trump? All of these factors undoubtedly contribute to DeSantis’s popularity within the GOP, but he has one secret weapon that is under-appreciated by both his fans and his critics: at 44, he’s very young to become this big a figure in national politics.
Ron DeSantis was born in the fall of 1978. He was two years old when Ronald Reagan became president. He was in college when his state became the fulcrum of national politics in 2000. When he was elected to an open U.S. House seat in 2012 he was 34, and he turned 40 just before his election as governor. Now’s he the same age as JFK was when he led a political youth movement. And if DeSantis is elected president in 2024, he’d become the third-youngest one in history (behind JFK and Teddy Roosevelt).
DeSantis is not exactly Pete Buttigieg-young, but he’s close. The Transportation secretary, who just turned 41, is an elder millennial; DeSantis is one of the youngest members of Gen X. But while they’re just three years apart, only “Mayor Pete” is regularly singled out for his youth. Maybe DeSantis comes across as more of a young fogey, but if so that’s not anything a new wardrobe and some highlighting of his time as a college baseball player can’t cure.
Compared to his potential 2024 rivals, DeSantis is a highly accomplished youngster. Trump is 76, Asa Hutchison is 72, Mike Pence is 63, and Mike Pompeo is 59. Even the candidate who is now campaigning as the avatar of a “new generation of leadership,” Nikki Haley, is seven years older than DeSantis.
One of the reasons DeSantis strikes Republican elites as a better 2024 bet than Trump is that the former president and Joe Biden come across as two geriatric peas in a pod. (In 1987, when Biden was making his first presidential run and Trump was publishing The Art of the Deal, DeSantis was nine years old). DeSantis is better positioned to take advantage of any age-related stumbles by the incumbent on the general election campaign trail. And if he did win the presidency, Republicans would have to worry much less about the identity of the vice president than they did when Trump was in the White House feasting on cheeseburgers, ice cream, and his own rhetorical bile. A DeSantis presidency would also give them a solid 2028 game plan; win or lose, 2024 will be Trump’s last race.
So expect to hear a lot more about Ron DeSantis, generational change-maker, if and when he formally joins the 2024 race. There is, however, an aspect of DeSantis’s tender age that his excited boosters really don’t want to hear: there’s no need for him to rush into a bid for the White House. He will be younger than Trump is today during the 2052 presidential election, and younger than Biden is today in 2056. That’s seven or eight cycles of opportunity beyond 2024. Does he really want to take his shot in a contest that involves beating one sitting and one former president? Does he really want to risk the sad spectacle of becoming a young has-been six years younger than Al Gore was after his last run for office in 2000?
Perhaps there’s no time like the present for DeSantis, who does seem to have captured the zeitgeist of his party and of the “conservative populist” movement he represents (somewhat improbably, after earning degrees from Yale and Harvard and later becoming a very conventional House Republican). Maybe if he waits around, some charming right-wing whippersnapper will come along who matches DeSantis’s knack for channeling hate and resentment. But now or even later, DeSantis can also plausibly claim that when it comes to his political career, the best is yet to come.
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