As top-level presidential candidates go, Ron DeSantis is a rarity these days. He was born after the Vietnam War, came of age when computers were common in American homes, and still has young children, rather than enough grandchildren to fill a basketball team.
Mr. DeSantis would be 46 on Inauguration Day if elected, younger than any president since John F. Kennedy. It’s a fact that he doesn’t explicitly state, but his campaign has set out to make sure that voters understand this.
Florida’s governor often speaks of having the « energy and discipline » needed for the White House, keeping a busy schedule of morning and evening events. He and his wife, Casey DeSantis, often talk about their young children, who are 6, 5 and 3 and joined their parents on the campaign trail. One of the few candidates with children still at home, Mr. DeSantis regularly points out his parental concerns about schools and popular culture while insisting on his right-wing social agenda.
When he signed the state budget on Thursday, he joked about it a tax break on one of the most staggering expenses of parenthood – diapers – was too late for his family, though not by much.
« I came home and my wife was like, ‘Why didn’t you do that in 2019 when our kids were still in diapers?' » DeSantis said.
The obvious goal is to create a stark contrast to his main rivals, President Biden, 80, and former President Donald J. Trump, who just turned 77, both grandparents who have children (Hunter and Don Jr.) larger than Mr. DeSantis. Voters have expressed concern about the age and fitness of both men, especially Mr. Biden.
About two-thirds of registered voters believe Mr. Biden is too old to actually serve another four-year term as president, according to a national survey conducted by Quinnipiac University last month. Only 36 percent of registered voters said the same about Trump, suggesting DeSantis’ relative youth could be more of an asset in a general election than a primary.
Still, Mr. DeSantis, 44, rarely speaks directly about his age, and the party he represents — older and whiter than the country overall — has never been known for nominating young presidential candidates riding a tidal wave of energy. in the White House, as did Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
His conservative views on abortion, climate change and how race is taught — among other issues — have left Mr. DeSantis out of step with many of his own generation. A majority of voters in her age group want abortion to be legal in all or most cases, think climate change is a very serious problem, and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Only about one in four voters aged 35 to 49 have a favorable opinion of DeSantis, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Mr. DeSantis also doesn’t seem to have a natural knack for capturing youthful enthusiasm the way Mr. Obama did. The latest major candidate to run on a generational changeover platform, the 44th president has been able to count on the support of young and influential cultural icons, including hip-hop artists.
Other than ranting about « wokeness, » Mr. DeSantis barely mentions cultural influences like television shows, movies, music, or social media. One of his attempts to reach younger people – announcing his Twitter campaign with Elon Musk – went haywire when the live stream repeatedly stopped. The soundtrack of his rally is a generic mix of country and classic rock, enriched by a Tribute hymn to DeSantis to the tune of « Sweet Home Alabama ». He doesn’t talk much about his love of golf or discuss his hobbies. His references to parenthood are often prompted by his wife.
But her kids — Madison, Mason and Mamie — are very visible. Neat stacks of toys, including baseball bats and a bucket of baseballs, are usually arranged on the front porch of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, visitors say.
No presidential family has raised children as young as the DeSantis brood since the Kennedy days, raising hopes among supporters of a conservative Camelot in the White House. The comparison is one that Ms. DeSantis seems to particularly lean on. The elegant dresses and white gloves that she sometimes favors seem to evoke Jacqueline Kennedy’s wardrobe.
The couple’s family-focused image softened DeSantis’ views among some Democrats in Florida. « I don’t like him as a politician, » Janie Jackson, 52, a Democrat voter in Miami who runs a cleaning business, said in an interview last week. « But I think he’s a good father and husband. »
Mr. Trump, who is twice divorced and has five children with three different women, may be particularly vulnerable to such comparisons.
“Committing to his family helps humanize him,” Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, said of Mr. DeSantis. “He IS a dad. People can relate to this. He gives him credibility to talk about family matters ”.
But voters can smell things, Carney added. « There’s a balance, » she said. « You don’t want your kids to look like a prop. »
Younger Republicans appear to respond to Mr. DeSantis. A recent survey by The Economist and YouGov found that the governor received his highest level of support from Republicans and slim Republicans aged 18 to 29, though he still trailed Trump 39% to 27% in that group.
At nearly every stop in their swings through early nomination states, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. DeSantis, who often joins her husband on stage to deliver remarks, mention their young family.
On a recent trip to Iowa, Mr. DeSantis and his wife, 42, arrived at the state fair with their children in tow. All three wore DeSantis-branded T-shirts with a « High Govlogo on the back. They signed a bus belonging to a pro-DeSantis super PAC — her son did it while wearing a baseball glove — while Ms. DeSantis, sporting a black « Where Woke Goes to Die » leather jacket despite the heat, knelt to help. Their eldest daughter, Madison, wrote her name in red and drew a heart above it.
« You guys wrote your stuff there? » asked Mr. DeSantis, after walking past attendees as he raised a daughter. The boys then moved on to a complimentary ice cream organized by the super PAC.
« Do you want me to hug you? » Mr. DeSantis asked his son, Mason, before picking him up as the boy continued to eat his ice cream.
On the chopping block, Mr. DeSantis usually brings up his children to emphasize political points, especially around education, or to accentuate his longstanding feud with Disney, which he accuses of indoctrinating children.
« My wife and I just believe that kids should be able to go to school, watch cartoons, just be kids, not have a schedule stuffed down their throats, » Mr. DeSantis said during a visit to New Hampshire. « So we take it very seriously and have done a tremendous amount to be able to support parents. »
DeSantis’s approach to family matters specifically appeals to conservative Republicans and has been criticized by Democrats and civil rights activists. She signed legislation banning abortions after six weeks, banning child gender transition care, imposing punishments on businesses that allow children to attend performances such as drag shows, and further limiting guidance education sexuality and gender identity in schools.
While on the campaign trail, the DeSantises often try to temper the polarizing nature of his political persona with tales of family life.
Mrs. DeSantis usually convinces her husband to open up about their children, including his adventures by taking them to eat fast food at a restaurant populated by drunk college students and, as a sign of the couple’s religiosity, having them baptized with sea water of Galilee in Israel.
At a stop in New Hampshire, Ms. DeSantis apologized to the crowd for her raspy voice, suggesting she strained her vocal cords in an attempt to protect the furniture in the governor’s mansion from one of her daughters.
“I had a very long and insightful conversation with that 3-year-old about why she can’t color on the dining room table with permanent markers,” she said.
Now, Mr. DeSantis has competition from another young, if much less well-known, candidate from his home state: Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, 45, whose campaign announcement video last week shows him he jogs around town and mentions his kids.
Another lesser known rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, has promoted himself as the first millennial to run for president as a Republican. Mr. Ramaswamy, 37, also has young children, boys aged 11 months and 3 years who are joined him on the path. Campaigning with children sometimes requires special accommodations, Mr. Ramaswamy said in a recent interview. His campaign bus, for example, is equipped with two car seats and a changing table.
At the end of an event in New Hampshire this month, he turned away from the crowd to thank his oldest son, Karthik, for performing so well during his speech.
« He got a bigger round of applause than me, » said Mr. Ramaswamy.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting from Des Moines.