Older and younger presidential candidates: How much of a factor is age? – Tyler Cowen on big business – AEI11th May 2019
Donald Trump is the oldest person ever to have been elected president, but if Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, William Weld, or Elizabeth Warren wins in 2020, he or she would set a new record. At the other end of the age spectrum, four candidates for the Democratic nomination (Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, and Eric Swalwell) would set a new record for youngest president if elected. How much do voters care about a candidate’s age? Do they worry more about an older candidate than a younger one?
The polling business has been investigating people’s views about younger and older candidates since 1939, when Gallup asked people about the youngest age at which a man should become president. Nearly three in 10, the top response, said between ages 36 to 40 years. In the same survey, they asked when a man was too old for the presidency, and 27% (again, the top response) said between 61 and 65 years. Twenty-two percent said between 66 and 70 years, 6% between 71 and 75 years, and 3% older ages. In 1940, 32% in a People’s Research Survey said a 38-year-old man was too young to be president. Thomas Dewey, who was 37 years old when the poll was taken, ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination that year.
In questions asked in recent years, people appear somewhat more comfortable with the idea of a relatively young president than with the idea of a relatively old one. When a 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll asked registered voters what they thought the best age for a president, a plurality (46%) said in their 50s. (Most presidents have been inaugurated in their 50s.) Thirty-six percent chose younger ages (31% said 40s, 5% said 30s), and 10% chose older ages (9% said 60s, 1% said 70s). Eighty-three percent in 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey said they would be enthusiastic about or comfortable with a presidential candidate under the age of 50, compared to 63% who said they would feel that way about a candidate over the age of 65. In a new 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 58% of registered voters said they would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a candidate under age 40; 37% gave that response about a candidate over age 75.
A recent Economist/YouGov online survey told people that “if elected president in 2020, several candidates would be 80 years or older while president.” Forty percent said this might make it too difficult to do the work the presidency requires, while 34% said age helps candidates to have the experience and wisdom to do a good job. The preface to their next question was “If elected president in 2020, several candidates would begin his or her term before reaching 40 years old.” Forty-two percent said the candidate’s age would help him or her to have fresh ideas to do a good job, while 29% answered that a candidate being under 40 might make him or her too inexperienced to do the work the presidency requires.
But these questions ask about abstractions. What have Americans told the pollsters over time about actual younger and older candidates? In an August 1944 survey taken when Franklin Roosevelt was 62 years old, 7% said his age would help him in getting elected, 34% hurt him, but 54% said it would make no difference. In a 1976 poll, when Hubert Humphrey was 64 years old, 27% said he was too old to be president while 64% disagreed. In 1979, in a Los Angeles Times survey, 23% said Ronald Reagan was too old, while 72% disagreed. In the NBC News exit poll in 1984, voters were told that Reagan was 73 years old and they were asked if his age influenced their vote. Sixteen percent said it did, but 82% said it did not.
In 2008, 58% of registered voters told CBS News/New York Times pollsters that Obama’s age helped him to have fresh new ideas needed to do a good job as president, while 24% said his being 47 when he assumed office might make him too inexperienced to do the work the presidency requires. The poll found that 54% felt John McCain’s age would help him have the experience and wisdom to do a good job; 31% said his being 72 when he assumed office might make it too difficult for him to do the work the presidency requires.
In a 2015 Fox News survey, taken when she was 67, 79% of registered voters said Hillary Clinton did not seem too old to be president. Sixty-seven percent said Marco Rubio, who was 43 at the time of the survey, did not seem too young. In an April 2019 Politico/Morning Consult question about Joe Biden, 35% of registered voters said he was too old to run, while 46% disagreed.
Age may be a factor for some voters, at least in the abstract, but polls show most people do not see it as a problem when asked about actual younger or older candidates.
Read more about this topic in the May issue of AEI’s Political Report.