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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Much Should Dems Worry About the Age of Their Politicians?

Monica Potts explains why “Aging Politicians Are Only Going To Get More Common” at FiveThirtyEight:

Presidents are getting older and older. Former President Donald Trump was the oldest person to assume office when he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2017, and President Biden broke that record four years later. If either is elected again next year, at ages 78 and 81, respectively, they will be older than the previous record holder, Ronald Reagan, was when he left office at the age of 77.

The possibility of an octogenarian on the presidential ticket is worrying many Americans — perhaps because it’s not just the presidency that’s aging. The current Congress, with a median age of 65 in the Senate and 58 in the House, is the oldest in history. Last week, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, seemed to freeze while speaking for the second time in two months, there were renewed calls for him to step aside, and 90-year-old California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been under similar scrutiny after a series of health issues. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who is 51 and running for the Republican nomination, has called for competency tests for candidates older than 75, and her opponent Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, has said it’s time for a new generation to step up and lead.

Voters are worried about the age of candidates and elected officials, especially when it comes to Biden. The vast majority of American adults, 77 percent, say he is too old to be effective for another four years, according to an AP-NORC poll in August. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters thought age severely limited President Biden’s ability to do his job in an Economist/YouGov poll from August. Similar questions were asked about Feinstein and McConnell, about whom 60 percent said the same.

But will voters actually start rejecting candidates because of their age? There are plenty of reasons why older politicians continue to hold the levers of power — and the structure of our political system makes it hard to force them to let go, even as Americans’ concerns about the country’s aging political leadership mount. That’s why Americans may continue to support older politicians when they’re in the voting booth, even as they say they prefer a younger leadership cohort.

Potts notes, further,

Some voters, though, think we should have clearer rules about when a politician is too old to serve. Sixty-seven percent of respondents strongly or somewhat supported an age limit for serving in the Senate in a YouGov/UMass Amherst poll from June, and 58 percent of adults thought age limits for serving as president would be a good idea in a Marist poll from last November. Sixty-eight percent of respondents favored mental competency tests for candidates over 75 in a YouGov/Yahoo survey from February. A plurality, 48 percent, think the job of president is too demanding for someone over 75, according to a CBS/YouGov poll from June. And overall, Americans’ preference for younger leadership is clear: About half of Americans think the ideal age for a president is someone in their 50s, according to the Pew Research Center.

….“I think the biggest reason that younger Americans want younger lawmakers is they feel they’re not well represented by older Americans, both from a standpoint of the things that older representatives might focus on or talk about that are different from what a younger candidate might talk about,” but also because, like all Americans, they want to see themselves represented in government, [University of Utah political scientist James M.] Curry said. Younger Americans are missing that representation now. “It makes them less satisfied with their representative government and less satisfied with their democracy,” he said.

Potts has more to say about the graying of America’s political leaders, and you can read more of her post here.

One comment on “How Much Should Dems Worry About the Age of Their Politicians?

  1. Victor on

    Age is only relevant as to the question of mental competence, something the voters can discern probably as well as your average doctor (eg recent McConell incident). Competency tests are out of place in politics as they can be unscientific and easily mixed with ideological prejudice (eg the discussions about Trump’s mental fitness).

    As to term limits, they represent a completely different discussion as they affect young politicians too.

    So we are left with age limits. Many states apply age limits to the judiciary. It would seem this is the only proper use of age limits, specially for lifetime appointments (eg Scotus).

    Voters may say something in the abstract but then completely turn around in practice.

    Bernie Sanders is really old too, but along with Elizabeth Warren and Trump they revitalized American politics from a sclerotic false consensus around not shaking things up too much.

    The issue with Biden is that he has chosen a non-combative style that people perceive as too passive. The tradeoff of trying to create a contrast with Trump this way is that people think his style is due to age more than political strategy.


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