Does a candidate’s age really matter?

Nearly 40 years separate the oldest and youngest candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign. Pete Buttigieg is 37, while Joe Biden is 77 and Bernie Sanders will turn 78 in September. Is Buttigieg too young to govern the United States? Are Biden and Sanders too old?

Given the wide age range among the candidates, how much does age really matter when it comes to voter preferences? This question has been on pollsters’ minds since Gallup began asking about it in 1939.

While the average age of candidates has changed since the days of FDR, voter attitudes toward age have not.

Age vs. Experience

Biden and Sanders are not the first senior citizens to run for president. Bob Dole was 73 when he ran in 1996, and Ronald Reagan was 69 years old in 1980. When polled at the time, most voters did not think either man was too old to run for office.

In 1979, just 23 percent of respondents in a Los Angeles Times poll said they thought Reagan was too old to be president, according to a report published recently by the American Enterprise Institute. After Reagan won re-election in 1984, just 16 percent of voters said that his age influenced their decision at the polls.

The same AEI report cited a Newsweek poll in 1996, where 39 percent of voters said they thought Bob Dole was too old to run for president. This is higher than the percentage for Reagan but still less than half of survey respondents.

On the other side of the spectrum, Barack Obama was 47 years old when he became president in 2008. In September of that year, a CBS/New York Times poll found that voters largely viewed Obama’s youth as a good thing.

The poll found that 24 percent of voters thought Obama was too inexperienced for the presidency, while 58 percent thought his age would help him bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the office.

Similarly, only 19 percent of voters thought that Marco Rubio, who was 43 when he ran for president in 2016, was too young for the job.

What Does it Mean for 2020?

As we saw in 2016, age and experience do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Donald Trump was 70 when he became president and assumed the office with no formal political experience. However, the 2020 race features some of the oldest candidates to ever run for office; several would turn 80 years old while serving in the White House.

According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, nearly half of Americans think that 80 is too old to perform the duties required of the President effectively. The percentages were roughly equal among Republicans and Democrats.

The perception of age is also consistent across young and old Americans, with only a slight shift toward saying 80 is not too old among respondents 65 and over.

The YouGov poll also found that 75 seems to be the age when someone becomes too old for the presidency, with three-quarters of respondents saying that they felt that way. Again, this was consistent among Republicans and Democrats, as well as among different age groups.

While Americans appear to have strong views about a candidate’s age, many could not correctly identify who the country’s youngest and oldest presidents were. Only 37 percent of YouGov respondents correctly identified Ronald Reagan as the country’s oldest president, while only 10 percent knew that Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president. 

Roosevelt was 42 when he was sworn in after William McKinley’s assassination. John F. Kennedy was 43 when he was elected president, making him the youngest person ever elected to the office.

Given the divisive nature of our political climate, expect age-based attacks to come up throughout the campaign. Messages will likely play on the relationship between age and experience, suggesting that certain candidates are either too old or too young to become Commander in Chief. 

Photo Credit: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

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