How Much Do People Care About Age?

I’ve always been pretty skeptical about polls that attempt to measure how people feel about issues because we rarely have a vote on those issues that can confirm or measure those polls’ accuracy. If you tell me that Obama is leading Romney in New Hampshire, well, eventually we get to find out if you’re right. But if you ask me if people care a lot about McCain’s age, we never get to confirm that. Still, pollsters do ask these kinds of questions and we have no other way of trying to answer them.

Back in 2008, the matter of McCain’s age was polled rather extensively. And there are some things in that polling that might still be of interest. For example, it seems like around a third of the electorate will respond by saying that age is a concern for them. That’s the percentage that said they worried about Reagan in 1984, Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008.

But, here’s where it gets a little more interesting.

The importance of the age question may be magnified this time around because it threatens to sap McCain’s support with one of his most critical constituencies: older Americans.

According to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, voters age 65 and older currently support McCain over Obama by 8 points (51 to 43 percent).

Older Americans are a group that, percentagewise, almost always turns out to vote more heavily than the electorate as a whole. McCain will need them firmly in his corner on Election Day.

Unfortunately for McCain, however, older voters also tend to worry more about the age issue than other voters.

“For younger voters, old age is an abstraction,” says CNN polling director Keating Holland. “For senior citizens, old age is a reality. In 1996, that difference hurt Dole with senior voters, but didn’t seem to matter to voters under 30.”

Did Dole’s age really hurt him with older voters in 1996? I guess I don’t know.

It’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who might ignore all the substantive differences between Dole and Bill Clinton and the priorities of the parties they represented, and cast their vote based on who they thought was more physically fit to “effectively govern the nation.”

But it’s not an entirely ridiculous question. Did Ronald Reagan show early signs of dementia during his first debate with Walter Mondale? And would it have been reasonable to change your vote from Reagan to Mondale based on your perception that Reagan might not be physically and mentally up to taking on a second term?

It seems to me that type of concern is largely addressed by having a vice-president. Of course, having a second who can fill in for you when you’re ill or exhausted is pretty straightforward, but what if you’re physically fine but deteriorating mentally?

It could be hard for staff to step in and convince you to take a break and turn the reins over to your veep. Certainly, Reagan never took that step.

We’re not a nation of Bill Frists who can remotely observe someone on the stump or campaign trail and figure out how healthy there are, which is why it’s important that we get detailed medical reports on the candidates and nominees.

The thing is, human nature being what it is, people will form their own impressions. Maybe it’s true that older voters will weigh this much more heavily than millennials. They do, after all, have a much better sense of what it’s like to work long stressful hours when you’ve reached an advanced age.

Pew Research found in 2007 that 48% of Americans said “they would be less likely to vote for a candidate in their 70s,” which Trump is and Clinton isn’t. They also found that older Americans were more concerned about the effect of aging, with 40% of retirement-age Americans saying McCain was too old to serve but only 24% of people under 35 agreeing.

Of course, one of the reasons I don’t put too much stock in these kinds of survey results is that no one can tell me what it means that 48% of the people were “less likely” to vote for McCain because he was so old. How many people actually voted for someone else for that reason?

It seems to me that older Americans probably had an easier time identifying with a man of their own generation than a guy like Barack Hussein Obama, and whatever concerns they had about McCain’s age were probably no more than the tiniest statistical noise in the actual results of the 2008 election.

We can always find someone who will give strange or idiosyncratic reasons for voting the way they do, but that doesn’t make them politically significant.

The most we can confidently say is that people do think about how strenuous it is to be the president of the United States and they form opinions about whether they believe the candidates can withstand the rigors.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Rasmussen finds that Clinton’s health (whether it’s a concern or not) falls along partisan lines. Republicans say they’re concerned, Democrats say they are not, and independents are divided.

Of course, a wise person puts no stock in Rasmussen polling. Perhaps better to look at other polling outfits with better track records. For example, the Huff Post/You Gov poll finds that “just 39 percent of Americans currently believe that Clinton is in good enough physical condition to effectively serve as president for the next four years.”

The HuffPost/You Gov poll was in the field after Clinton had her medical episode on September 11th but before her doctor Dr. Lisa Bardack released reassuring information about her condition. It was also, as Huffington Post notes, “largely before Trump’s interview with Dr. Mehmet Oz on Wednesday, in which he discussed his love for fast food and shared that he considered emphatic hand-waving a form of exercise.”

While it’s true that early voting is almost upon us (e.g., Vermont and Minnesota start 45 days before the election), the September 11th event will be a distant memory by Election Day.

I think, and I hope, that people will vote based on their vision for the future of our country, and not based on subjective and speculative factors like how likely it is that Donald Trump will drop dead from Big Macitis and lack of exercise.

In the end, we’ll never really know what impact any particular event or consideration had on why people voted the way they did.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.