There’s an inextricable vanity to politics. People who seek elected office are definitionally asking to be judged favorably by voters. In theory, those judgments derive from the candidates’ positions and value. In practice, though, they are also judged on other metrics, like appearance.
So let’s consider that idea from two perspectives. First, is there actually a link between candidate height and primary success? Second, is there evidence that a not-that-tall DeSantis is trying to orchestrate an actually-pretty-tall presence?
When endeavoring to figure out how height and political fortunes compare, one immediately hits a significant roadblock: Most candidate heights are not explicitly reported. During the 2016 Republican nominating fight, I tried to evaluate similar questions about height-padding surrounding a different Florida Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio (R). One very quickly finds that reports vary wildly, and, since this is a niche interest (to put it mildly), reports on candidate heights often work backward to the same original source.
This time I decided to try something different. For each contested primary since 2000, I pulled a photo of a debate in which the relative heights of candidates were shown. I also queried ChatGPT for its assessments of candidate heights, figuring that it would at least serve as a consistent aggregator of this information. For more than one reason, though, we ought to treat its assessments with skepticism.
Without further ado, the heights and final popular-vote rankings of contested primaries over the past 23 years. In each photo, the numbers indicate the candidate’s place in overall popular votes earned during the primary contests.
Tallest candidate: This one is easy. The tallest candidate was former NBA star and New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (labeled with a ②) (6′5″, per ChatGPT and also official NBA statistics).
Winning candidate: Vice President Al Gore (6′1″).
Tallest candidate: According to ChatGPT, the tallest candidate was businessman Steve Forbes ④, at 6′3″. Former Utah senator Orrin G. Hatch ⑥ is identified as being three inches shorter than Forbes — which is certainly not depicted in the photo. Is this a fluke of the photograph? A miss by ChatGPT?
Winning candidate: It’s clear, though, that the tallest candidate wasn’t the winning one: George W. Bush (5′11″).
Tallest candidate: Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) ① (6′4″, per ChatGPT).
Winning candidate: Kerry.
Tallest candidate: Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ① (6′1″, per ChatGPT).
Winning candidate: Obama.
Tallest candidate: Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson ⑤ (6′5″, per ChatGPT).
Winning candidate: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (5′9″).
Tallest candidate: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum ② (6′2″, per ChatGPT).
Winning candidate: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (6′1″).
Tallest candidate: Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley ③ (6′1″, per ChatGPT).
Winning candidate: Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (5′5″).
Tallest candidate: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush ⑥ and Donald Trump ① are both listed at 6′3″ by ChatGPT.
Winning candidate: Trump.
Tallest candidate: Both former vice president Joe Biden ① and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ② are listed at 6′0″.
Winning candidate: Biden.
You can see that results are mixed. Even setting aside ChatGPT’s assessments, the photos show that height and victory don’t correlate all that well.
There is some research to suggest that height plays a role in political victory, mind you. (Here’s an example.) Interestingly, there’s also research from Poland that suggests more-popular politicians are perceived as taller by voters. In my story about the 2016 Republican primary, I noted that the taller candidate in a presidential general election usually won — as happened in 2016 but not 2020.
So, with the understanding that greater height is not a guarantee of victory, let’s assess DeSantis’s height.
Above, it’s indicated that Biden is 6 feet tall. That’s ChatGPT’s assessment — but it’s also what has been reported by the White House physician. We can therefore be confident in that characterization.
Last year, Biden and DeSantis appeared together in Florida as they surveyed damage from Hurricane Ian. There were a number of photos of the two men taken together. They appeared to be about the same height.
While DeSantis was wearing a boot with a heel that day, Biden was as well. It’s hard to tell if there’s a significant difference in heel height based on the cropped photo above, but, if there is, it’s subtle. (ChatGPT, incidentally, pegs DeSantis at 6′2″, which seems incorrect.)
It seems clear, then, that DeSantis is probably about 6 feet tall — not 5′9″, as some critics have charged, and several inches shorter than Trump (whose medical report had him at 6′3″, in line with ChatGPT). When the two appeared at a rally together in 2019, it was clear that DeSantis was slightly shorter — perhaps in part because of his heel.
The good news for DeSantis? The taller candidate doesn’t always win.