Too Old to Be President?

Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(6) 752756
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221118344
Too Old to Be President?
Semra Sevi
The overrepresentation of advanced age among elites is a rising concern in democracies such as the United States. In 2016,
American voters elected Donald Trumpat the time the oldest president to enter off‌iceand in 2020 Joe Biden beat that
record. Theories of descriptive representation suggest that voters should be less likely to support older candidates when age
becomes a salient campaign issue. Indeed, age raises questions about a candidates physical and mental health, and thus their
f‌itness to serve in off‌ice. The present study reports on a survey experiment conducted during the 2020 Democratic Presidential
primaries, which featured several candidates in their seventies, all running to replace an incumbent president of the same age
group. Priming age did not affect votersassessments of any particular candidates ability to win the general election. These
results are inconsistent with existing studies of age effects using hypothetical candidate s. Possible causes of this discrepancy are
addressed in the discussion.
age, descriptive representation, vote choice, candidates, Democratic primaries
I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not
going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents
youth and inexperience.
Ronald Reagan, 1984
In recent years, the age of politicians has increasingly become
a salient topic of media coverage.
In the United States, there
is a debate about the possible rise of gerontocracyand its
ramif‌ications for American democracy.
In 2016, Donald
Trump and Hilary Clintonwho at the time were 70 and 69,
respectivelymade headlines for their age, as either one of
them would have become the oldest individual to be elected
president. In the most recent US presidential election, which
was held in 2020, Americans had to once again choose
between the two oldest major-party presidential candidates in
US history––Joe Biden at 77 and Donald Trump at 74.
While most political systems have minimum age re-
quirements for candidates, much rarer are maximum age
limits. This is because life expectancy used to be much
shorter, but humans are living longer now than ever before
(Vespa,2 018). Existing studies on political elites suggest that
legislative bodies across the world overrepresent older voices
(Eshima & Smith, 2022;Norris 1997;Stockemer & Aksel
Sundstrom, 2018;Sevi, 2021). This has important conse-
quences for descriptive and substantive democratic repre-
sentation, as we have reason to believe that older politicians
are less likely to cater to younger voters (Curry & Haydon,
2018;McClean, 2021).
One reason that political elites are older could be that
voters generally prefer older candidates, perceiving younger
candidates to have less experience and qualif‌ications to serve.
However, research on votersattitudes towards candidates
age is limited. This research note reports the results of a
survey experiment in the context of the 2020 Democratic
primaries, which featured 28 contenders. The candidates
included six women, the f‌irst openly gay candidate, and two
billionaires. In a historic f‌irst, 2020 was also the f‌irst pres-
idential election cycle in which most of the major candidates
were septuagenarians: Joe Biden (77), Michael Bloomberg
(77), Bernie Sanders (78) and Elizabeth Warren (70). There
were also two younger candidates: Pete Buttigieg (38) and
Amy Klobuchar (59). All of them were vying to beat the
oldest-ever f‌irst-term president, Donald Trump, who turned
74 on June 14, 2020. Thus, this was an ideal setting to as-
certain age effects in vote choice. Democratic primary voters
had the task of not only deciding whether an older candidate
should be the Democratic Partys nominee, but also assessing
whether said candidate could unseat the incumbent in the
general election.
Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Semra Sevi, Columbia University, Mail Code 3320, New York, NY 10027-
6902, USA.

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