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Age and Politics

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t been writing about politics as much as usual, this cycle, so it appears that I haven’t actually written here the thing I’ve been saying in conversation: An election between John McCain and Barack Obama would be a generational election, and in generational elections, the younger candidate wins. That was a good deal of the reason I thought that Barack Obama would have a slightly easier time beating John McCain than Hillary Clinton would. So I finally decided to make the point in a note, and in order to do so, looked up age spreads for recent elections. And it turns out that the thing I thought is not actually true. Damn it.

In the last fifty years, there have only been two candidates who were really significantly older or younger than their opponents. Bill Clinton was twenty-three years younger than George H.W. Bush, and twenty-two years younger than Bob Dole. Both of those were in some sense generational elections; the older candidate had fought in World War II, and the younger had avoided fighting in Vietnam. Those were prime years for my interest in electoral politics, and that presumably is why I thought what I did about generational elections.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was thirteen years older than Jimmy Carter and seventeen years older than Walter Mondale; Walter Mondale was born in 1928, and was the first nominee too young to have fought in World War Two. 1984 ought to have been a generational election, but it wasn’t, and you can tell it wasn’t, because the older candidate won, and by Vardibidian’s Rule of Tautological Question-Begging, younger candidates win generational elections.

The other election that I think of as generational is 1960, but if that one was generational, then generational has nothing to do with the spread of the candidates ages, as JFK was only four years younger than RMN.

Jimmy Carter was eleven years younger than Gerald Ford, but I don’t think of that as being a generational election at all. Dwight Eisenhower was ten years older than Adlai Stevenson (both in 1952 and in 1956, remarkably), and is often talked about as fatherly, avuncular or even grandfatherly, but I don’t think that Adlai Stevenson was talked about as youthful. Perhaps he was. And Harry Truman was eighteen years older than Thomas E. Dewey and won re-election in what also ought to have been a generational election, with President Truman hanging on from FDR’s glory and the young challenger born in the twentieth century. But then Gov. Dewey was twenty years younger than FDR when he ran against him in 1944. And William Jennings Bryan was seventeen years younger than William McKinley in 1896 (and again in 1900), if that matters.

That said, Barack Obama is twenty-five years younger than John McCain. That’s a lot. If it’s still an issue, Hillary Clinton is eleven years younger than John McCain, which doesn’t seem like that much. Oh, and if Hillary Clinton wins election, we’ll have had a President born in either 1946 or 1947 for five consecutive terms, or conceivably six, when four is remarkable in itself.

Another pattern to think about is that we do not like to replace a President with an older President. Ronald Reagan is the only candidate in a hundred years (at least) to break that rule. Otherwise, the birthdays of elected presidents are a steady march forward (allowing for vice-presidential succession to temporarily reset that clock). That’s not the same thing as a generational election, and applies just as much to Sen. Clinton as Sen. Obama, though.

And it’s important to keep in mind: this election will be an exception. All Presidential elections are exceptions, largely because they don’t come around very often, but this one will be even more so. No incumbent Executive. Two sitting Senators with no Executive (office-holding) experience. An African-American (or, conceivably, a woman) will be one of the nominees for the first time. At least one and probably both Parties rejected their front-runners for the nomination. The sitting President and his Party are incredibly unpopular, and the President’s personal popularity is at a level that is probably unique, at least for a hundred years. And we’re at a sort of war. So don’t expect to predict what will happen based on what has happened.

If present trends continue, that will be the first time that present trends have ever continued. Thank the Divine for that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Yeah, but ... Ow. I think I need an aspirin.

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