The Age Factor in 2016

Geoffrey Skelley of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has some interesting data on age as a factor in presidential elections, obviously in response to speculation that Republicans can take advantage of HRC’s relatively advanced age (she would be, if elected, the second-oldest president, less than a year behind Ronald Reagan):

[G]oing all the way back to 1856 — when the Republican Party took on the Democratic Party for the first time — the older major-party candidate has won 23 of the 40 presidential contests in that time. This is a very slight point in the older candidate’s favor.

But what about open-seat presidential contests? This removes incumbents from the equation, who are usually four years older unless they came into office by means other than election (e.g. death or resignation). In the 16 open-seat elections for the White House since 1856, older and younger major-party candidates have split evenly, with each winning eight.

Of course, this isn’t a completely apples-to-apples comparison. The nature of political campaigns has changed drastically over time. Just compare 1896, when William McKinley sat on his front porch, to 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off on television in the first presidential debate.

So perhaps in the television era, being younger has been an advantage? If we start with JFK (instead of Eisenhower, who was a two-time older winner over Adlai Stevenson), in 14 overall contests between 1960 and 2014, the younger candidate has won eight. In the five open-seat contests in that period, the younger candidate has won three: On the younger side, Kennedy won in 1960, Nixon won in 1968, and Obama won in 2008; on the older side, George H.W. Bush won in 1988 and his son, George W. Bush, won the controversial 2000 contest. (As an aside, if Jeb Bush faces Hillary Clinton, he’d be the first Bush seeking to win as the younger candidate!) An eight-six overall edge and three-two open-seat advantage for younger candidates in the TV age isn’t much to write home about. And if we include Eisenhower in the TV era count, it’s an eight-eight and three-three pair of draws between younger and older candidates.

So much for any historical “youth dividend.”

Skelley goes on to note that the age of the 2016 nominees, especially if Republicans choose one of the younger options, will cut against their parties’ strengths. But it doesn’t strike me as terribly likely that, say, Scott Walker–who seems to have been a self-identified Young Fogie for most of his adult life–is going to have special magic with Millennials. It’s perhaps more likely that HRC will do a bit better than any other Democrat with Baby Boom women entering retirement age.

Speaking of the gender angle, Martin Longman had this observation at Ten Miles Square:

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.

In any event, Skelley and Longman seem to agree that of the many variables affecting the 2016 election, age may be least prominent. All I’d add is that this particular election aside, the Donkey Party could sure use a boost with seniors if they are ever going to win another midterm.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.