What Role Does Age Play In Presidential Elections?

Hillary Clinton in Hampton, NH
Creative Commons License Marc Nozell via Compfight

With Hilary Clinton seemingly poised to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016, a fair amount has been written on her age (see, for example, http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/21/opinion/frum-hillary-clinton-double-standard/ ). She’s been in the public eye for a long time, which probably explains part of this commentary, and it also seems likely that there’s also a gendered element to it. As a female candidate, she can probably expect increased negative attention on relatively superficial factors like her appearance, tone, and age. But is some of this discussion also rooted in the contrast between Clinton’s experience and Obama’s key appeal from 2008, that his administration represented change? Do Americans tend to go for younger candidates when they want change and older candidates when they want continuity?

Even if we just look at the presidential level, consider the last 10 presidential elections. Two of the three occasions where an incumbent was defeated (1976 and 1992), i.e. when ‘change’ might be argued to be an important theme, it was a younger candidate defeating an older candidate. The largest age gaps between presidential candidates was the 29 years between Obama and McCain, and it also came during some of the worst economic conditions in recent memory, and the younger candidate won convincingly. These are just suggestive patterns. Another interesting point is that when a challenger is older than an incumbent, they tend to nominate a vice-president younger than themselves. We see this in 1980, 1996, 2004, and in 2012. The full set of information is reproduced below:


Year Candidates Ages Votes
2012 Obama/Biden vs Romney/Ryan 51/69 vs 65/42 51.1% vs 47.2%
2008 Obama/Biden vs McCain/Palin 47/65 vs 76/48 52.9% vs 45.7%
2004 Bush/Cheney vs Kerry/Edwards 58/63 vs 61/51 50.7% vs 48.3%
2000 Bush/Cheney vs Gore/Lieberman 54/59 vs 52/58 47.9% vs 48.4%
1996 Clinton/Gore vs Dole/Kemp (go bills) 50/48 vs 73/61 49.2% vs 40.7%
1992 Clinton/Gore vs Bush/Quayle 50/48 vs 68/45 43.0% vs 37.5%
1988 Bush/Quayle vs Dukakis/Bentsen 64/41 vs 55/67 53.4% vs 45.7%
1984 Reagan/Bush vs Mondale/Ferrarro 73/60 vs 56/48 58.8% vs 40.6%
1980 Reagan/Bush vs Carter/Mondale 69/56 vs 56/52 53.4% vs 45.7%
1976 Carter/Mondale vs Ford/Dole 52/48 vs 63/53 50.1% vs 48.0%

The age of a candidate seems likely to be taken as a signifier not only of experience, but also of a general orientation to continuity or to change. It will be interesting to see whether Clinton can reframe criticism of her age instead as a signifier of experience without being labeled as an establishment candidate, which could be to her detriment depending on the context in 2016. It will also be interesting to see whether any future vice-presidential nominee of hers reflects the dynamics identified above.




About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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