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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 20: Age As An Issue in 2020

I’ve written about this issue before, but with the presidential field now forming, it’s time to get serious about it, as I argued at New York:

With Bernie Sanders’s announcement of a 2020 presidential candidacy, we know for sure that there will be at least one aspirant for the job who would turn 80 during his first term in office. He’s the second septuagenarian to enter the race, counting the 72-year-old incumbent, though Elizabeth Warren will turn 70 this summer. And the field could soon include another candidate who would have an 80-candle birthday cake in the White House, Joe Biden (a little over a year younger than Sanders).

Will our budding gerontocracy be an issue during the nominating or general election stages of the 2020 campaign?

[F]ans of Biden and Sanders tend to brush off questions about their heroes’ ages by denouncing ageism, touting their vigor as compared to the junk-food-loving and sedentary Trump, or pointing at each other (if Biden can run, so can Bernie, and vice versa). But it was an issue in the presidential campaigns of the two nonincumbent septuagenarian major-party nominees before Trump (Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 — both younger than Biden and Sanders will be in 2020), whose other unusual features overshadowed his age. So it cannot just be waved away as somehow irrelevant.

Presumably the younger Democratic rivals of Biden and Sanders will bring up the age issue indirectly by drawing attention to their own relative youth and/or their appeal to younger voters (though it will be tough for any of them to do better among younger voters than Sanders did in 2016). But the most destructive way it could arise, especially in the general election campaign in which no vulnerability will go unexploited, would be via a negative health event or some incident suggesting a “senior moment” or some more serious cognitive issue.

Do Democrats really want to take that chance given the existential threat of a second Trump term? And conversely, could they find significant value in a situation where it’s Trump and Trump alone who is vulnerable to age-related voter concerns? Is that a potential advantage that should be casually tossed away?

These are certainly factors that ought to be taken into consideration along with current horse-race polling and other candidate assessments that don’t take terrifying if marginally likely possibilities into account. Democrats have the luxury in 2020 of a vast field of qualified candidates with platforms ranging across the ideological spectrum; it’s doubtful there’s any one candidate who is indispensable. Perhaps testing the upward limit of an intangible maximum age for running for president is worth the risk in order to beat Trump soundly or reward Biden or Sanders for past service. But dismissing the risk involved is plain foolish.

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