The Apprentice

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends the Thanksgiving Family Forum on November 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

When was the last time a candidate badly underperformed expectations in his first campaign for president, then went on to win the White House later?

Trump won the first time he ran. (Seriously ran, that is. His 2000 Reform Party stunt candidacy doesn’t count.) Ditto Barack Obama. Ditto George W. Bush. Ditto Bill Clinton.

The last president who failed in his first try was Bush the elder, but not every failure is due to poor performance. Ronald Reagan was the favorite in 1980 and Bush managed to beat him in Iowa en route to earning a spot on the national ticket. It’s hard to call winning the vice presidency a disappointment.

Reagan also failed in his first run for president, but that can’t fairly be described as underperformance, either. He faced an incumbent in Gerald Ford in 1976 and nearly pulled an historic upset. If anything, he beat expectations.

The only bona fide first-time disappointment to end up as president recently is the current guy, who was regarded as a serious contender in the 1988 cycle before plagiarizing his way into irrelevance. So take heart, Ron DeSantis fans: There is hope for a newbie candidate who underwhelms in his first grab at the brass ring.

All it took for Joe Biden to regain national viability was 32 years, another failed run for president in 2008, two terms as vice president, and an image makeover across decades that turned a brash young loudmouth in the Senate into a kindly enfeebled grandpa. Even then, he barely overcame an opponent in 2020 whose portrait might as well accompany the term “dark triad” in psychology textbooks.

DeSantis 2056 is a live possibility. What about DeSantis 2028?

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