The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the 2020 election, an age-old question looms

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One of Ronald Reagan’s better political put-downs came during a debate during the 1984 presidential election.

Reagan was asked by one of the debate moderators if he was concerned about having the physical stamina to serve a second term, given that he was already “the oldest president in history.”

“Not at all,” Reagan replied. “I want you to know also 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.”

His opponent was Walter Mondale, who’d served as vice president until 1981. Reagan was 73. Mondale was 56.

That question of fitness has come up again, with 2020 looming. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a report on how Iowa Democratic leaders view the expected field for their party, learning that one concern was common: that many of the top candidates will be awfully old.

Among those raising that concern was the 26-year-old party chair of a county in Iowa that is home to about 90,000 people, a reminder of the outsize influence Iowa plays in our presidential process. But the concern was common enough in the Journal’s interviews — and has been raised frequently enough elsewhere — that it’s worth considering.

At issue are three candidates in particular: Former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). On Election Day 2020, they will be 77, 79 and 71 years old, respectively. Sanders would be the second-oldest candidate since that Reagan-Mondale election in 1984, topping Reagan that year (almost 74) but not former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen (R), who was 81 when he sought the nomination in 1988.

Sanders, Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who is reportedly thinking about a run and would be 78 on Election Day 2020) are in the box on the chart below. Every other major-party candidate since 1984 is indicated by a dot; eventual nominees' dots are larger and darker.

There is a lot of data in that chart, but that box still stands out. Notice, though, that those Democrats will be vying against a likely Republican nominee — President Trump — who would himself be the ninth-oldest candidate since 1984, at age 74 in 2020. He’d be the third-oldest Republican behind Stassen and former Texas congressman Ron Paul when he ran in 2012.

Notice something interesting about the data, too: The four elections in which the Democrats have won most recently, the nominated candidate was the youngest running for the nomination. Only one other time since 1984 has the youngest Democrat in a field won the nomination: Al Gore in 2000. Gore ran in a winnowed-down Democratic field and lost in the general election by the closest margin in modern history.

There are some interesting patterns on the chart above that are easier to see if we pull out the average age of a field and compare it with the age of the nominee.

It’s a small sample size, but Democrats have had more luck in November when the nominee has been younger than the average age of the field. The four times that the Democratic nominees have been older than the average age of the field? 1984, 1988, 2004 and 2016 — years in which the Democrats lost the general election.

While the Republican average has been relatively flat over time, the Democratic average has increased. Democratic fields, in other words, are now older than they used to be. But of the 12 candidates most likely to vie for the nomination in 2020, six are below the group’s average age.

Nine are younger than Trump. Since 1984, when Democrats have won the presidency, they’ve been an average of 21 years younger than the Republicans they faced. That’s about the difference between Trump and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). (When Republicans have won, they’ve been an average of about five years older.)

Put another way: Yes, there are some possible Democratic candidates who are on the older end of the spectrum. Recent history suggests, though, that those candidates who are much older than the field average have been less likely to win the presidency.

There’s a coda to that Reagan-Mondale story that’s worth noting. Toward the end of his second term, many observers believed that Reagan’s mental abilities had faded to a noticeable extent; after leaving office, he announced that he was suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s. His rejoinder to Mondale was apparently prepared, in part, following questions about his acuity in a prior debate.

Point being: The question itself was not without merit.