Age and the Presidency

The health of the candidates for president of the United States is all up in the news these days with both candidates bumping up on 70:

Mr. Trump is 70 years old, and if he prevails he would be the oldest newly elected president, eclipsing Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he took the oath of office in 1981. Mrs. Clinton, who turns 69 next month, would be the second-oldest.

Does this really matter?  And if it does, how much should it matter?

Well, first let’s take a look back at the elections since 1992.  The victor is listed on the left and each candidate’s age on inauguration day for the election is in parentheses:

1992 Bill Clinton (46) vs. George H.W. Bush (68)
1996 Bill Clinton (50) vs. Bob Dole (73)
2000 George W. Bush (54) vs. Al Gore (52)
2004 George W. Bush (58) vs. John Kerry (61)
2008 Barack Obama (47) vs. John McCain (72)
2012 Barack Obama (51) vs. Mitt Romney (65)

As we can see, the younger candidate has won five of the last six presidential elections.  The lone election that didn’t follow this pattern is the infamous 2000 election between Bush and Gore and those two candidates were less than two years apart in age.

I think this simple analysis shows that younger candidates do have a certain advantage in these elections.  And as someone who lived through all of the above elections, I can tell you that the larger age gaps detailed above definitely played a factor in the public’s perception of the races.  In 1992, Clinton was the cool young guy that played the saxophone on late-night talk shows.  Bush ’41 was everybody’s grandpa.  In 1996, Dole was essentially viewed as an old codger.  In 2008, war hero McCain who was in his seventies could not have been more juxtaposed with the youthful Obama.

When you trot out candidates with a 20 plus year age gap versus their opponents it definitely matters…and not in a good way.  One would think that age would bring wisdom and experience and that those qualities would be valued highly, especially when war heroes like Dole and McCain were involved, but our culture has rejected those candidates soundly.

This year, though, both candidates are old.  What does this mean?

Well, like 2000 and 2004 when the age gaps were smaller, I don’t age in this election will play a major factor.  Health — or perceived health — may play a factor, but I don’t think age will.  It can’t really, because you can’t argue for one candidate or the other based on age.  Duh.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Donald Trump comes off as an old coot.  Until recently, I didn’t really even think about his age and was sort of shocked when I heard he was 70.  He doesn’t come across as a “get off of my lawn” type dude and he seems high energy (sorry, Jeb).

The other candidate, regardless of her doctor’s excuse, seems to lack the energy and stamina to handle the rigors of the job.  It’s one thing to have people say you are healthy and fit, but it’s quite another for people to see you constantly having some sort of problem.  These sorts of problems may not lose an election for you, but it hardly helps to win one.

Our country is divided and this is definitely a bizarro-world election.  Most of us have made our minds up about for whom we will vote and these issues don’t really make a difference.  But for the mushy 10 to 15% of the electorate who have not made up their minds, it just might.

 

 

 

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