Skip to main content

Election Impact: Who’s to Blame for the Aging Presidential Options?

Who’s to Blame for the Aging Presidential Options?

June 2024

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

Presidents only have to be 35 years old, according to the Constitution, but apparently voters seem to think you have to be twice that age to serve in the White House these days.

Out of all the storylines that make up the 2024 presidential race, age is probably the most pervasive. Not only is the oldest president in history (Joe Biden, 81) trying to fend off a challenge from a man who would be the second oldest president in history (Donald Trump, 78), but voters will likely have the same choice they had four years ago.

“More than 330 million people in the United States, and this is the best we can come up with?” is a common question I get asked at events or even in casual conversations. The natural temptation is to blame politicians, the parties or the process, when the voters play a key role.

Before exploring how we got here, it should be noted that the age of the presidential candidates is remarkable.

In January 2021, Biden was the oldest person to become president at 78 years and 61 days old. The previous record holder was actually Trump, who was 70 on Inauguration Day 2017. Before that it was Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981 at the ripe young age of 69.

But while Biden receives more scrutiny for his age, Trump isn’t that much younger. If the former president wins this fall, he’d become the second oldest president inaugurated, since he would be older than Biden was in January 2021 by about five months. By the current GOP logic, if Biden is too old to serve as president now, then Trump will be too old to serve as president during his second term.

A couple of elderly candidates fell short in the not-so-distant-past including Arizona Sen. John McCain (72 years old by the end of the 2008 race) and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (73 years old in 1996). But they were both younger than Trump and Biden are now by a decent margin.

The list of living politicians who are younger than Biden and Trump borders on comical. It includes former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Dick Cheney, who seemed old when he served as vice president during most of the 2000s, is 83 years old, not much older than Biden and Trump.

The plague of the elderly is not limited to the major party options in 2024. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is 70 years old, author and professor Cornel West is 71, Green Party candidate Jill Stein is 74. Author Marianne Williamson, who just ended her second presidential bid, is 71 as well. If voters are looking for younger candidates, they just don’t have many options at this point. But that hasn’t always been the case.

“How did we get here?”

The presidential race hasn’t always been a battle of the grandfathers. Nine presidents took office in their 40s, including Theodore Roosevelt (42), Ulysses S. Grant (46), Grover Cleveland (47), Franklin Pierce (48), James Garfield (49) and of course James K. Polk (49). Just three of them have been in the last century, including John F. Kennedy (43), but two of them have been within the last five presidents: Bill Clinton (46) and Barack Obama (47).

While youth and energy were components of the 1960, 1992 and 2008 races, it was not voters’ priority in 2016 or 2020 or through the primaries in 2024.

In 2016, a 70-year-old Trump methodically lambasted and outlasted a raft of young options, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (45), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (45), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (45) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (49). Republican primary voters came to love Trump’s brand of politics, his outsider profile, his message, and his celebrity and never focused on age. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton (69) was younger than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (75) but older than Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (53).

In 2020, Trump was the incumbent president, and thus unlikely to face a serious challenge, even though he was older than Reagan when he sought reelection.

But Democrats had lots of younger options, including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (38), California Rep. Eric Swalwell (39), Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (39), Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton (42), Andrew Yang (45), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (46), Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (47), and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (48), and yet Biden (77), Sanders (79), and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (71) were some of the last candidates standing.

Age and experience came to be a necessary asset to the important mission of defeating Trump, potentially hurting younger candidates who didn’t seem prepared to accomplish the desired mission. Biden was nominated in 2020, not as a function of his age but his ability to defeat Trump (with significant help from Black voters). Democrats kind of backed into an aging candidate.

The incumbency dynamic is a key reason why alternatives, younger or otherwise, didn’t prevail in 2024.

As the sitting president, Biden was unlikely to have a serious primary. Rising stars in the Democratic Party realized that age was not enough to carry a challenge to the incumbent. Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips decided to give it a shot anyway, and his bid was met with crickets. Democratic primary voters decided early on that uniting behind their flawed incumbent, aging and all, was better than risking a divided party behind a 55-year-old unknown congressman or someone else younger than Biden.

And Trump is effectively the incumbent on the Republican side. He never admitted defeat, never stopped running and has remained the leader of the GOP. There were credible, younger options, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (45), Vivek Ramaswamy (38) and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (52), but GOP primary voters weren’t interested. They’ve kept Trump on his pedestal for years because they value his style, policies or brand in spite of his age, not because of his age. In other words, Trump’s brand of celebrity and business transcends his profile as an aging politician. Also, his attention to his physical appearance has masked some of his elder qualities.

“Why these two choices?”

So why are general election voters faced with a choice between the same two old white guys again? Because primary voters chose them. Trump and Biden enjoy support from the vast majority of their parties. Republican primary voters had younger options in 2016 and 2024 but chose to stick with Trump. Democratic primary voters had multiple younger options in 2020. If age had been a big enough concern in 2024, then Democrats would have expedited their efforts to replace Biden with someone else.

It can also be hard for younger candidates to compete with older politicians. Age can have positive side effects, from higher name identification and a coalition of allies to larger platforms and, maybe most importantly, a broader fundraising network. Those can take time to build and curate.

One way to clear the path for younger politicians is to force aging politicians into retirement. The Constitution already discriminates with age minimums (25 years old to serve in the House, 30 for the Senate and 35 for president), so an age maximum shouldn’t be dismissed. A constitutional amendment along these lines might actually garner bipartisan support, at least once Trump is off the political stage.

So how did we get here, and who is to blame for our geriatric choices? Primary voters and the people who declined to participate in primaries. Voters in both parties — many of whom probably grouse about their choices now — had opportunities to cut off both Trump and Biden before they got this far. But enough voters either chose to look beyond their age or didn’t care enough about their age to participate in the primaries.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. You can also hear more on the Inside Elections Podcast. His email address is [email protected].

The incumbency dynamic is a key reason why alternatives, younger or otherwise, didn’t prevail in 2024.

Featured Event

Covering emerging issues affecting local, state and federal government relations professionals, expand your network while getting answers to your toughest policy questions.

Washington, D.C. | Sept. 25-27