The Older White Male Ticket and How We Got Here

When he took the oath of office in January 2017, Donald J. Trump became the oldest person, at age 70, to ever assume the presidency of the United States, breaking the record set by Ronald Reagan in 1980, and far outside the average age of 55. This fall, voters will choose between Trump (now age 74) and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who turns 78 in November.

That voters would be choosing between two septuagenarian white men seemed unlikely as the 2020 election season got underway. While incumbent President Trump was clearly poised to be re-nominated by the Republican Party, the field of potential Democratic Party nominees was diverse in age (and gender, race, and sexual identity), including the boyish Mayor Pete Buttigieg, just 37 years old in 2019, Julián Castro, age 46, and Beto O’Rourke, age 48. Yet, older candidates, including Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (79 in September) and Elizabeth Warren (71) consistently dominated the polls.

What Were Voters Doing?

Occasionally, a younger candidate enjoyed a moment of voter enthusiasm, but these anomalies were short lived--such as Senator Kamala Harris’ quick boost after the first primary debate in June 2019, and Buttigieg’s brief lead in late 2019. The race always came back to the older contenders.

White voters are more likely to participate in elections than are people of color, and older voters are more likely to participate than younger voters. These gaps in participation are even more stark in primary elections. That older voters preferred Joe Biden is some of the story. But it doesn’t fully explain the outcome of the Democratic contest.

Younger voters were inspired by Bernie Sanders’ political revolution rhetoric, and to a lesser extent by Elizabeth Warren’s progressive platform. Instead of choosing a candidate based on their age, they came out for candidates they believed in. But more importantly, they didn’t come out; only about one in eight voters on Super Tuesday was between ages 18 and 29.

Black voters consistently preferred Joe Biden, to the detriment of Black candidates, including Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and Latino voters preferred Bernie Sanders, not Julián Castro. Elizabeth Warren finished third or fourth among women in every Super Tuesday state.

What Were Voters Thinking?

By every account, the word of the season is electability. In survey after survey, voters participating in the Democratic primaries reported being very concerned about the electability of the eventual nominee. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost due to a lack of support from white voters in the upper Midwest. Democrats in 2019 and 2020 were looking for someone that they thought might win back those swing voters.

Theodore R. Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told NPR in March 2020, “for an electorate where the most important thing is beating Donald Trump in November … Biden presents as the person who can do that.”

This thinking includes his appeal to Black voters as the vice president to the first Black president in history, and also as a candidate who will appeal to white voters. Latinos said they were drawn to Sanders despite his race and age, “because his platform speaks to our people.”

The Power of Electability

From the beginning of his campaign, Biden stressed that he should be the nominee because he had the best chance to unseat Trump. Even as pundits and journalists debated the meaning of electability, it clearly dominated how voters were making their decisions. They weren’t deciding who to support based on age, or race, or even candidate positions on the issues. They were deciding based on who they thought would win.

The focus on electability only strengthened after March 2020, as voters sought a candidate who they could trust to handle the coronavirus pandemic. When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, voters sought a candidate who displayed empathy and was attuned to issues of systematic racism and racial justice. Biden spoke to those voters.

Cyclical Preferences

Voters tend to vote retrospectively: judging the incumbent president or party and then voting either for more of the same or for a change. Often, voting for change also means voting for a younger candidate, like John F. Kennedy in 1960, Bill Clinton in 1992, or Barack Obama in 2008. This year, however, the mood of the country seems to be not so much a desire for change as a desire for normalcy, a theme Biden has emphasized.

Voters also tend to waver between wanting experts and wanting outsiders. Trump had never before held elective office and was very much not a Beltway insider. Dissatisfaction with his performance as an outsider encouraged Democratic voters to seek a more experienced politician: something Vice President Biden, with his decades of service, clearly embodies.

Will this Keep Happening?

The U.S. population is getting older. As more Americans live longer and healthier lives, there are more examples of politicians working well into their seventh and eighth decades. Given that older Americans are also more likely to vote, this may not be the last time the presidency is a battle between two elder statesmen.

On the other hand, future candidates are more likely to be women and people of color. The U.S. population is becoming more diverse, with whites projected to be a minority by 2045. The increased diversity of Congress and other elected offices around the country provides a deep bench of potential future candidates.

Does Age Matter?

Reagan famously quipped during a 1984 debate, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Voters have many considerations on their minds when they choose a president, including candidate age. But until and unless our recent tendency to nominate septuagenarians leads to an in-office death by natural causes, it’s unlikely to have much impact on their choices.There are many ways in which our country is divided today, but generational differences pale in comparison to our polarization on values and policy preferences. When voicing those preferences at the polls, Americans have far weightier considerations on their minds than the chronological age of their potential leaders.

Melissa R. Michelson is dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Menlo College. She tweets at @profmichelson.