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The age of the elderly candidate: how two septuagenarians came to be running for president

David Smith in Washington
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

“I woke up and I felt good,” Donald Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in Arizona, slamming the side of his lectern as he described hospitalisation with the coronavirus. “I said, ‘Get me out of here’. Boom! Superman!”

As the US president mimed Clark Kent ripping up open his shirt to reveal the Man of Steel’s “S” logo, the crowd chanted: “Superman! Superman! Superman!” The rally ended with loudspeakers booming Y.M.C.A by Village People: “Young man, there’s no need to feel down …”

Seventy-four years old and clinically obese, Trump appears eager to prove his virility. He is fighting an election against a man who is even older – Joe Biden turns 78 next month. If Biden wins, he will eclipse Trump’s own record as the oldest person to be sworn in as president.

The statistics are counterintuitive in a society that can often seem obsessed with youth. Voters’ thirst for change did not prevent this election being contested by two septuagenarian white men. But it has fuelled debate over whether the mental and physical toll of old age could impair the decision-making of the person with the nuclear codes.

Former president Jimmy Carter, 96, is the longest lived US president in history.
Former president Jimmy Carter, 96, is the longest lived US president in history. Photograph: John Amis/AP

“I hope there’s an age limit,” Jimmy Carter, who at 96 is the longest lived US president in history, told an audience in Atlanta last year. “If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president. You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way.”

Carter was 56 when he was beaten by Ronald Reagan, who at 69 was then the oldest person elected to the presidency. Reagan endured a gentle decline over two terms and was sometimes mocked for memory lapses and self-contradictions. Five years after leaving office he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ronald Reagan, at 69, was the oldest person elected to the presidency in 1980.
Ronald Reagan, at 69, was the oldest person elected to the presidency in 1980. Photograph: Chuck Robinson/AP

Aware of the concerns, Biden’s campaign released a medical report last December saying he is a “healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency”. Trump, meanwhile, “remains healthy” according to the results of his latest physical exam, which the White House made public in June.

But the president has sought to weaponise the issue. As the election draws near and he barnstorms the country at campaign rallies, he is making baseless claims that “Sleepy Joe” is suffering cognitive decline, senility or even dementia. “He’s mentally gone,” Trump told Fox News. He also tweeted a meme that said “Biden for resident,” picturing the Democrat in a wheelchair seated among elderly people in a nursing home.

Biden responded in kind during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes programme last Sunday. “Hey, the same guy who thought that the 911 attack was a 7-Eleven attack,” he said. “He’s talking about dementia? All I can say to the American people is watch me, is see what I’ve done, is see what I’m going to do. Look at me. Compare our physical and mental acuity. I’m happy to have that comparison.”

Critics have suggested that Trump’s crude tactics could be seen as insulting by elderly voters and backfire. They also point to examples when the president slurs or uses the wrong word, and an incident when he walked gingerly down a ramp after speaking to West Point military cadets.

Trump’s age came under further scrutiny earlier this month when he was infected with the coronavirus, which severely impacts the elderly. He made a speedy recovery but then said in a confusing video message: “We’re taking care of our seniors. You’re not vulnerable but they like to say you’re vulnerable. You’re the least vulnerable but for this one thing, you are vulnerable. So am I.”

It is Biden, however, who is more historically unusual. The last five Democratic presidents were John F Kennedy (aged 43 on taking office), Lyndon Johnson (55), Carter (52), Bill Clinton (46) and Barack Obama (47). For Republicans, Trump fits a more familiar pattern.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “He was by no means the first ‘older’ nominee from the GOP [Grand Old Party]; Reagan was 69, John McCain was 71 and Mitt Romney was 65. The Democratic candidates have trended younger as far back as JFK in 1960, and they have only been successful at winning the presidency after 1964 with candidates under the age of 55.

“The party presidential nominating system tends to produce nominees who are older because of the type of electoral political experience typically required of successful nominees and the networking that is involved with state party activists over time to win state primaries.”

The nominees’ seniority in years raised the stakes in the recent vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence, 61, and Kamala Harris, who has since turned 56. Both candidates were asked whether they had discussed with their respective nominees the question of presidential incapacity; both avoided giving a direct answer.

Schiller added: “Americans are living longer than ever, and in better shape, so Joe Biden at 77 may very well be in better shape than Ronald Reagan was at 69. Donald Trump has proven to be a vigorous campaigner out on the road at the age of 74.

Joe Biden bounds up the steps of a plane in Delaware.
Joe Biden bounds up the steps of a plane in Delaware. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“However, I do think that in Biden’s case, as it was with John McCain, the VP choice carries more weight than it would if he were younger because voters are taking into account the fact that the VP could step in to serve as president.”

Trump and Biden are old politicians in American terms but not in global terms. Winston Churchill was 76 when he was reelected as British prime minister in 1951 and the Queen is the world’s oldest head of state at 94. She is followed by Raúl Castro of Cuba at 89, Colville Young of Belize at 87, Cameroonian president Paul Biya at 87 and Lebanese president Michel Aoun at 85, according to Wikipedia, US supreme court justices continue to sit on the highest court until death.

Drexel Heard, the youngest Black executive director of the Los Angeles County Democratic party, said: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 and I think that people still respected her legal mind and everything she stood for. She still had a few more years left on her and nobody questioned her fitness for the supreme court.”

Heard, 34, added: “I don’t think that age has been a big factor in this election but, in down ballot races, we are seeing more and more younger candidates across the country run for office. That’s the silver lining to a lot of that question, which is, what happens next?

“Joe Biden has always said he’s essentially a transitional president and he knows what’s coming up next. That’s part of the reason why he chose Senator Harris as his running mate and certainly why he continues to endorse candidates up and down the ballot at a younger age.

Senator Bernie Sanders, 79, showed that age is no barrier to campaigning.
Senator Bernie Sanders, 79, showed that age is no barrier to campaigning. Photograph: Nicole Hester/AP

During the past two Democratic primary cycles Senator Bernie Sanders, now 79, showed that age is no barrier to campaigning hard or exciting young voters. There are still questions over whether Biden can prove similarly inspiring but, among those in the demographic who do vote, there is little doubt he will crush Trump.

Coby Owens, 25, a civil rights activist from Biden’s home city of Wilmington, Delaware, said: “It was a difference between ideology when it came to the young people excited about Bernie and the young people who are excited about a Biden campaign. But I think, at the end of the day, you’re seeing all the youth-led organisations coming together and coalition building for Biden.

“One of the things that we know is that, regardless of where he stands on a policy right now, we have a better chance of getting what we want and what we need for our future with a President Biden and vice-president Harris rather than a President Trump and vice-president Pence.”

A more surprising shift is taking place at the other end of the age spectrum. Republicans have led among the elderly by around 10 percentage points in the past four presidential elections. But Covid-19 has hit this group especially hard – around four in five of the Americans killed by the virus are above 65 – and appears to have dragged down Trump’s popularity.

The president trails among elderly voters by more than 20 points, according to recent CNN and Wall Street Journal/ NBC News polls. This swing could prove critical in states such as Arizona and Florida, which have a high number of retirees. Both campaigns are making huge investments in ads targeting older voters.

On a recent visit to The Villages retirement community in Florida, Trump claimed: “Biden’s plan would mean America’s seniors have no air conditioning during the summer, no heat during the winter and no electricity during peak hours. It’s true.” It is not true.