IN THE 37 PRESIDENTIAL elections since Florida's admission to statehood in 1845, Sunshine State voters have chosen the eventual winning candidate 28 times.The last time Floridians backed a losing candidate was 1960, when they chose Richard Nixon over John Kennedy.That makes ten straight presidential contests in which Floridians backed a winner!
As we know from the 2000 elections, when victory in Florida put George Bush in the White House: As Florida Goes, So Goes the Nation!
It seems curious, then,that past presidential campaigns have all but ignored Florida's Panhandle. In fact, it wasn't until the 1952 Democratic presidential primary that America's major party candidates brought their campaigns to Bay County.
On April 30, 1952, Senators Richard Russell (Ga.) and Estes Kefauver (Ky.)arrived in Panama City, seeking votes in what was then known as a "preferential primary" (which didn't necessarily bind delegates to a particular candidate).
Kefauver--the Kentucky senator who was as famous for his trademark coonskin cap as his crime-busting legislation--spoke to a crowd of 500 soon after arrival at the municipal airport. The folksy Kefauver placed his cap atop a young boy's head as the crowd cheered.
Later that evening, Senator Russell spoke to 1,200 locals at Tommy Oliver Field, flanked by Panama City Mayor Carl Gray and Congressman Bob Sikes. On May 27, Russell--bouyed by heavy support from the Panhandle--defeated Kefauver in the primary.
Neither man, however, would win the '52 nomination. That summer, convention delegates drafted Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson (who would lose to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in November).
IN THE SPRING OF '56, Stevenson and Kefauver--battling for the nomination--brought their campaigns to town.
Stevenson took a walking tour of Harrison Avenue, the heart of Panama City's downtown, where he shook hands and schmoozed customers. After lunching at the Cove Hotel, Stevenson spoke to about 500 supporters on the hotel lawn, praising Panama City as an exemplar of Florida's rapid growth. The candidate, known for his wit, quipped, "My friend Bob Sikes has served 16 years in Washington, and I'm only asking for half that many...in the White House!"
Kefauver's '56 visit included a speech at the Civic Center and a night at the Dixie-Sherman Hotel. Although he would go on to win the primary, the Democrats again nominated Stevenson, who then choose Kefauver as his running mate.
No matter. America liked Ike just fine, thank you, and Stevenson and Kefauver were soundly defeated that November.
The 1952 Democratic campaign, though unsuccessful, evokes memories of the first time the eyes of the nation turned to Bay County during America's race for the White House.