Instructive March Polls for 2020: Day Five — Ageism?

Author’s note: This will make more sense if you read Monday’s post:

  • Percentage completion of March: 90
  • Percent progress to February’s Visitor number: 90!!

This week I’m deploying a desperate attempt to reach February’s Visitor count by doing one short (read: under 1000 words) post a day with a theme: some kernel of illuminating information from a poll taken this month. Come check each day!

  • Monday: Trump’s Re-election chances — What do the polls say?
  • Tuesday: Iowa! — A look at recent polling for the Iowa caucuses
  • Wednesday: The “FoxHole” — A look at the Fox News’s influence on viewers
  • Thursday: Bernie Sanders’s Viability — A look at his falling popularity
The 2020 Election Stat of the Day: A Presidential Age Limit?

Beware the looming gerontocracy!

At least, that’s what most Americans are wary of, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. The polling company found that 53 percent of likely voters want an “age limit” for presidential candidates. Of that 53 percent, nearly 59 percent think the limit should be 70 years old, with another 24 percent saying the limit should be just 55(!). My back-of-the-envelope calculation — 0.53 X (0.59 + 0.24) — determines that about 44 percent of Americans think a presidential candidate should be no older than 70. That’s remarkably close to half.

I must admit: I do admire the elegance of the minimum age being 35, which is prescribed by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, and a maximum age being 70, which is twice that number, but that’s not a very good argument. Instead, advocates of an age limit might point out, as the New Yorker‘s Ed Kilgore does, that “a 75-year-old man has a 22 percent chance of dying within six years, and along with it the possibility of cognitive deterioration (an estimated 15 percent of people between the ages of 80 and 84 suffer from some form of dementia).” Defenders of no age cap will point out how fit modern civilization can keep older people, and that some 70-year-olds are in better physical shape, have stronger mental acuity, and can expect to live longer than many 50-year-olds. They might also point to greater life experience being an advantage, not a liability.

It’s obvious why age is asked about these days. The 2020 presidential race will have four major candidates for the presidency over 70 years old. (Sorry, Mike Gravel… I said major.) And, for once, we have an issue that’s bipartisan. Whether one allows or rejects this particular age limit, they’d have to accordingly allow or reject each of these septuagenarians:

  • Bernie Sanders, born September 8, 1941[1], will be 79 on election day.
  • Joe Biden, born November 20, 1942, will be 77 on election day.
  • Donald Trump, born June 14, 1946, will be 74 on election day.
  • Elizabeth Warren, born June 22, 1949, will be 71 on election day.

For the moment, the age of the candidates seems to be a non-factor on the race. President Trump is incredibly popular with Republicans and maintains support from about 43 percent of the country. Meanwhile, Biden and Sanders continue to dominate Democratic polling, including in Iowa. Sanders’s recent loss of support from the broader electorate can be attributed to conservative media’s concentrated post-midterm attack on socialism, not his advanced age. Age just doesn’t seem at the forefront of voters’ minds as long as there exists candidates in their own party that are old.

Nevertheless, we can expect that once we have our general election candidates, one of the two sides will make age a bigger issue. It’s happened twice in recent history, both times with Democrats attacking their elderly opponents: Bob Dole, who was 63 in 1996, and John McCain, who was 72 in 2008.[2] If Democrats nominate someone not listed above, I can easily see them attacking Trump’s age and health — he would, after all, be 78 for most of his final year — a record for the office — and he does, after all, have questionable eating habits and attitudes toward exercise. But if Sanders or Biden were nominated by the Democrats, the liberal media would ignore the age question, and we would instead see the Fox News machine calling into question if someone who would reach their 80s during their first term should be our commander-in-chief.

For those looking to defend le ancien régime here, there’s disappointingly thin support across presidential history. Here are some interesting stats I found from Wikipedia:

  • The median age for a president when they first take office is 55 years, 3 months. (Lyndon Johnson)
  • The median age for a president at death is 71 years, 3 months. (Grover Cleveland)
  • If we remove the four assassinated presidents, the median age at death is still just 72 years, 5 months. (William Howard Taft)
  • Though more recent presidents generally live longer than earlier ones, the trend is not as dramatic as you might think. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — three of our first four presidents — are among the 10 longest lived presidents. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren — our sixth through eighth presidents — join them in the top 15. Nearly half of the 15 longest-living presidents were born in the 1700s.
  • The oldest president ever first elected was 70. His name is Donald Trump.
  • Before him, Ronald Reagan held the record at 69. He was re-elected at 73, making him the oldest president elected.
  • Before Trump and Reagan, you have to go all the way back to our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, to find the next oldest elected president. In 1840, he was elected at 67 years old.
  • Besides Trump and Reagan, only one other president reached the age of 70 in office. (Dwight Eisenhower, with three months to spare in his second term)

Here’s our presidents’ ages (when they take office) on a bar graph:

1024px-Age_of_presidential_ascension.svg

Americans seem to prefer middle-age in their chief executives.

Finally, let’s consider the presidencies and/or fates of our six oldest presidents elected:

  • Reagan’s re-election at 73 makes him our oldest elected president. Five years after leaving office at 77, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, though symptoms showed earlier.
  • Trump was second oldest (70). Draw your own conclusions.
  • William Henry Harrison was our third oldest (68). One month into his presidency, he died from pneumonia.
  • James Buchanan was our fourth oldest (65). He’s regularly listed at the bottom of presidential rankings.
  • George H.W. Bush was fifth oldest (64), but acquits himself well.
  • Zachary Taylor was our sixth oldest (also 64, but 122 days younger than H.W.). After Harrison and James Garfield, who was assassinated within a year of taking office, he owns the presidency’s third-shortest tenure. Just 16 months into his term, he got sick and died.

Yikes! Maybe there should be an age limit after all.

Thanks for “Visiting” this week! Now we’ll see if inertia gets me Past February’s number. If you missed any posts lately, feel free to catch up over the weekend!


FOOTNOTES:

[1]Holy smokes, that’s before Pearl Harbor!

[2]Go back a bit further, to 1984, and we have 73-year-old Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, delivering the all-time great comeback to the age question: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

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