Should age be a factor in the race for U.S. president?

By UM News

Should age be a factor in the race for U.S. president?

By UM News
With a field of Democratic presidential candidates that includes three septuagenarians, the question is popping up.

The large group of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president is not only diverse, but it includes some of the oldest U.S. politicians to ever run for office. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76 years old, Bernie Sanders is 77 years old, and Elizabeth Warren is 70 years old. 

Also, Republican President Donald J. Trump is 73 years old. 

Age took center stage during the Democratic debate in Miami in June when candidate Eric Swalwell (who has since dropped out of the race) challenged Biden by urging him to “pass the torch” to younger candidates. 

Like Swalwell, many voters feel that older candidates, no matter how healthy or willing to serve, should let the younger generations take over. Other voters point to the U.S. Supreme Court justices and others in the federal government who serve in the position for life. 

At the state level, some states do mandate retirement age. Florida’s constitution was amended last year to make it mandatory that justices for the Florida Supreme Court retire at age 75.  Previously, the retirement age was 70. 

University of Miami faculty experts in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Law shared their thoughts on age in the race for president.  

What are the pros and cons of being older in this presidential race? 

Being older, in this case, also translates into having a lot more experience and more name recognition than the other candidates. The downside is that many younger voters may find Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to be out of touch.

-- Michael Touchton, assistant professor, Department of Political Science   

In the general election, older voters are more likely to turn out on election day. Being older gives the candidate an advantage with this group. Second, Democrats are looking for candidates with some government experience, and older candidates have had more time to develop a resume of public service. 

-- Gregory Koger, professor, Department of Political Science 

In an experiment that we conducted in 2015, we find a positive relationship between candidate age and voter age. You vote older if you are older, and younger if younger. There is a strong positive correlation between voter turnout and age (i.e., for myriad reasons older people vote more), and this suggests that age might not hamper a candidate's chances (unless younger people are effectively mobilized to turn out). 

-- Casey Klofstad, UM professor, Department of Political Science 

Will the older candidates appeal to the younger voters? Why or why not?

Joe Biden will appeal to many younger independent and moderate voters, but he is too old, white, and moderate to appeal to many younger activists in the Democratic Party, who are far to the left of him in terms of their policy positions. Bernie Sanders may appeal to some of these voters, but he has lower appeal for voters of color, which comprise much of the Democratic Party’s younger base. 

-- Michael Touchton, assistant professor, Department of Political Science  

It’s too soon to tell. Bernie Sanders did develop a youth following in 2016 due, in part, to his proposals to end college debt. In this cycle, however, there are several younger candidates who have made similar proposals. 

According to a recent CNN poll, former vice president Joe Biden does much better among voters over 50 than under 50. 

-- Gregory Koger, professor, Department of Political Science 

What about the physical stamina and energy required to do the job? Are they up to it? 

Yes. I don’t think people see age as a problem for being up to the job. Not among these candidates, at least. 

-- Michael Touchton,assistant professor, Department of Political Science 

Obviously this will depend on the candidate. Reporters have mentioned that Biden doesn’t seem to make many campaign appearances, and that he seemed unprepared for the first debate. Sanders, on the other hand, appears to keep up a full schedule as a candidate. Of course, if elected, Biden or Sanders would have to fulfill the demanding schedule of the president for four to eight years. 

-- Gregory Koger, professor, Department of Political Science 

Since they are septuagenarians, what qualities would their candidate for vice president have to possess? 

It would be very helpful for older, whiter candidates to have a younger person of color as a running mate, possibly a woman; if Biden or Sanders get the nomination, that will help them appeal to their least supportive constituencies. 

-- Michael Touchton, assistant professor, Department of Political Science  

This is a difficult question. The classic approach to choosing a vice president is to provide regional balance, but since 1992 presidential candidates have selected VPs to provide ideological, age, racial, or gender balance.  

-- Gregory Koger, professor, Department of Political Science 

There is a minimum age requirement (35) for people who want to run for the presidency, should there be a cut-off age for candidates to run for office? 

Probably not. People are living healthier, active political lives for longer than ever. I think the voters will act as a jury to cut off older candidates who do not seem like they can handle the rigors of the office. 

-- Michael Touchton, assistant professor, Department of Political Science 

I would not recommend it. Voters can decide for themselves whether age is “just a number” or a reason to reject a candidate. Life expectancy has increased a lot since 1787, and a constitutional maximum age may prove inflexible if we continue to see politicians remaining effective until later in life. 

-- Gregory Koger, UM professor, Department of Political Science  

Why hasn’t there been legislation drafted to impose a maximum age law to run for the presidency? What would it take to draft such legislation?  

It would not be difficult to draft a statute that would mandate a maximum permissible age for presidents and perhaps for other public officials as well. After all, the United States Constitution provides a minimum age (35 years old) for a person who is otherwise qualified to be eligible for the presidency.   

The problem with such legislation is not drafting it but explaining why it is a good idea based on principles consistent with a representative democracy. Imposing a maximum age is one of those things that the voters can impose by voting. Voters can weigh age against the candidate’s other strengths and limitations and against competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.   

Mandatory retirement ages are no longer imposed by law. Developing evidence that age itself should, in all cases, be disqualifying has proved unpersuasive. Age is a complex variable that can mean many things in virtually all contexts, including serving in public office.  

Because it is difficult to establish that age is always in all cases inconsistent with effective public service, such legislation would very likely be regarded under current law as discriminatory. Candidates for public office are likely to be wary of even potential discrimination when older voters are quite likely to vote. Older voters themselves may well prefer to vote for younger candidates, but this is a very different decision than endorsing potential discrimination based on age. There are many elements of campaigns and elections that would benefit from legislation. Defining a maximum age for holding public office is not one of them.   

-- Frances Hill, professor of law and Distinguished Scholar for the Profession