Donald Trump turned 70 on Tuesday, and while it’s unlikely that his fellow Republicans and Democratic opponents will be sending him gift baskets anytime soon — especially after his recent run of incendiary remarks on race and religion — his birthday does illuminate something else about the current campaign for the presidency: It appears age has been neutralized as an issue.
After three relatively young presidents in a row, the next occupant of the White House is all but certain to be a senior citizen. Hillary Clinton will be 69 this fall, Sen. Bernie Sanders — who has yet to formally drop out of the race — is pushing 75. And Trump, should he triumph in the general election, would be the oldest president elected to a first term, surpassing his idol Ronald Reagan, who was 69 during his 1981 swearing-in ceremony.
Ironically, when Clinton was expected to face the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio in a general election match-up, there was a lot of hand-wringing and headlines speculating about whether her age would turn off voters. Her every coughing fit was subjected to scrutiny (and in some circles, still is), as was a 2012 incident when she passed out and suffered a concussion during a bout with a stomach virus.
However, amid Clinton’s historic ascent to the Democratic nomination and Trump’s near-dominance of the 2016 narrative, it appears that voters have moved on to more pressing concerns than the advanced age of the presidential contenders. Both candidates have emerged as their parties’ presumptive nominees, despite failing to excite many young voters, and in Trump’s case, facing opponents who were far more fresh-faced. Perhaps, in this era of economic uncertainty and the grave threat of both international and domestic terrorism, voters are keen to have a leader who evokes more wisdom and gravitas? Is the public in the mood for more of a parental figure than a peer?
The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling on the subject, from last spring, showed that a majority of U.S. voters — 53 percent — were comfortable with a person over the age of 65 as president, which was a higher percentage than those who would be satisfied with an evangelical Christian, a gay or lesbian, a first-term senator, or even a person running as an Independent. Only 26 percent of voters said they had some reservations about an elderly president and just 10 percent said they were very uncomfortable with the idea.
But in just the past 20 years, age has appeared to have a net negative effect on the more elderly candidate in a general election. Despite trepidation about then-Sen. Barack Obama’s lack of experience and some clear and present prejudice over his background, voters were more comfortable with him than the then 72-year-old Sen. John McCain by a wide margin. Polls that summer suggested that there was much more concern among voters about McCain’s age than Obama’s race.
In fact, the Pew Research Center determined in May that a whole quarter of the electorate considered McCain too old to be president at age 71, and that number rose to 32 percent when people surveyed were informed of the Arizona lawmaker’s specific age. The Obama campaign subtlety took advantage of dynamic in a polarizing ad, entitled “Still,” which underscored how “out of touch” McCain was and mocked his admitted inability to send email.
“Age was a factor in 2008 but only as a part of the calculation over whether voters wanted change versus more of the same. The fact that Obama and McCain came from different generations just served to underscore that divide,” former Obama White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told MSNBC on Tuesday. “Age will play a role in the 2016 campaign but less because of the age of the candidates and more about the age of the voters who support them, and how they’re divided.”
In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole’s age — then 73 — was a constant source of material for late night comedians. And when he took an embarrassing tumble from a stage at a campaign rally that September it only contributed to a perception that he may have too frail to fill the role of commander-in-chief.
Perhaps, it was Ronald Reagan who changed perceptions permanently about when and how politicians can reach their peaks. In the late 1960s and ’70s, Reagan launched several, ultimately unsuccessful, bids for the presidency, culminating in his photo finish convention defeat in 1976 at the hands of President Gerald Ford. “At 65 years of age,” The New York Times wrote in their post-mortem at the time, Reagan was “too old to consider seriously another run at the presidency.”
But four years later, “the Gipper” defied the pundits — and many members of his own party — by emerging as their standard bearer in 1980. It didn’t hurt that his dark hair (which most presumed was dyed) and weathered-but-still-formidable Hollywood looks conveyed the image of a much younger man, or that his opponent that year, President Jimmy Carter, had lost much of his once-youthful glow during his tumultuous four years in office. Reagan won in a landslide.
Four years later, at the age of 73, Reagan’s age and mental acuity came into play — and an infamously poor first debate performance in 1984 against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale generated serious questions about the president’s state of mind. With his trademark humor, Reagan diffused the controversy in his second debate with Mondale, quipping, “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.”
Reagan ended up coasting to another landslide victory, and his electoral success went a long way to cementing not just his legacy, but also promoted a positive image of a grandparent-type figure in the White House.
The fact that presidents, at least modern ones, tend to be in excellent health and live very long lives (no president since Lyndon Johnson has died before age 81) may have also provided a calming effect on voters. And its not just presidents who are living longer lives, it’s the American public in general — which has seen the average life expectancy jump to record highs in recent years.
Of course, Clinton may have an advantage over Trump in this regard — the average woman is expected to live until the age of 81 in the U.S., while men lag behind at age 76. Still, Trump, whose physician claims he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” has been well-known for betting against the odds.