When we talk about the age of presidential candidates as an historic factor in their electability, we probably should differentiate between pre- and post-television eras. I don’t think it helped Ulysses S. Grant that he was 11 and 12 years younger than his two opponents. On the other hand, it probably helped Bill Clinton that he was 22 and 23 years younger than his.
If Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee, she could easily match her husband’s age advantage in reverse. For example, she’s roughly 23 years older than Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. She’s 20 years older than Scott Walker, 15 years older than Rand Paul, and eight years older than Mike Huckabee. As for Jeb Bush, he was born in early 1953 while Clinton was born in late 1947.
FDR and Truman were about 20 years older than Thomas Dewey and defeated him anyway.
In the television era, the record in mixed. Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections despite being much older than his opponents, but Carter, Clinton, and Obama came out on top as younger, less experienced candidates.
I’m not convinced that the historical record is helpful here. For one thing, Hillary Clinton has some unique advantages. Most obviously, she’s a woman. But she’s also a woman of an age that matches the rise of professional women, meaning that she has symbolic importance to a whole generation that is now old enough to skew Republican. There are a lot of people who would see in Clinton’s election a kind of acceptance and validation for themselves and the choices they made as mothers and in their careers. In this sense, being a bit older actually helps Clinton with a cohort that might be less receptive to a male Democrat. This factor might be strengthened if her opponent is a much younger man who is perceived as not having yet paid his dues. After all, Clinton hasn’t just been put through the media and political ringer, she’s also been a First Lady, a senator, a strong presidential candidate, and a popular Secretary of State. She’s built the resume, so some freshman senator in his forties might seem presumptuous to challenge her credentials. This was a factor that strengthened Clinton against Obama even if it wasn’t strong enough to put her over the top. In other words, a gender advantage might counteract an age disadvantage.
Another factor helping to mitigate Clinton’s age is the positioning of the two parties on some key issues. Younger Americans might find it easier to visually identify with Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz than with Clinton, but they’ll find it hard to choose their side on issues like climate change, gay marriage or the proper role of religion in public life in general. And, as long were talking about visuals, there are least as many Americans who will have a problem electing a Cuban-American as there are reluctant to vote for a 69 year old white woman.
There could be some areas where Clinton shows her age in a cultural sense or that a younger Republican might be better able to connect with younger voters, but if she has the more tolerant, progressive platform, she should do very well with them.
Rand Paul has more potential to threaten her on this turf by getting to her left on national security, prison reform, and marijuana. He’s really the only Republican in the race that I can see getting some kind of advantage on the age issue.
[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]