May 28, 2014

    Is Hillary too old for White House?

    HILLARY Clinton's age wouldn't keep me from voting for her.

    She'll be 69 on Election Day 2016.

    I voted for a 72-year-old by the name of John McCain in 2008.

    Age was a legitimate issue to consider when Mr McCain ran for president.

    It's a legitimate issue to raise about Mrs Clinton, too - and the evidence of recent elections suggests it may well undermine her in 2016.

    Americans have not often reached back a generation to choose a president.

    They've chosen a president more than five years older than the previous one only four times, and Mrs Clinton is 14 years older than President Barack Obama, 52.

    In the four elections with a significant age gap between the party nominees since the Cold War ended, the younger candidate has won every time.

    In two of those elections, the age gap was big enough that exit polls asked about it.

    In 1996, Bob Dole, then 73, lost to a 50-year-old Bill Clinton.

    In 2008, Mr McCain lost to Mr Obama.

    Although Democrats went after the Republican's age each time, the polls found that most voters didn't care about the issue.

    In 1996, in polls asking whether Mr Dole's age affected his ability, 64 per cent of voters said no.

    In 2008, the pollsters were more delicate, asking if the age of the candidates had been a factor in the ballot booth.

    This time, 60 per cent of voters said no.

    The ones who did care about age, though, cared a lot.

    Of voters who thought Mr Dole's age affected him, 79 per cent opposed him.

    Mr McCain lost 66 per cent of the voters who said age influenced their decisions.

    A naive reading of the polls would suggest that age was what cost the Republicans both elections.

    The people who weren't worried about age gave Mr Dole 58 per cent of their votes and Mr McCain, 55 per cent.

    An older candidate, or that candidate's supporters, can try to dismiss concerns about age as mere bias.

    But the data suggests the limits of that strategy.

    In 1996, the polls consistently showed that "the older the voter, the more likely he was to believe that Dole's age would be an obstacle", as Abrams and Brody wrote.

    Their theory: "Older Americans did indeed project on Dole their own experience with health and the problems of ageing."

    One might have thought that the ageing of the electorate would make it easier for an older candidate to win.

    It may actually have the opposite effect.

    A research paper found that the voters and the media paid too little attention to the risks of a senior-citizen president.

    The majority who said Mr Dole's age didn't matter "were simply unaware that the man they might vote for had a 20 per cent chance of dying in office or, if they were, they didn't care."

    Average out the voters' views, though, and you get a pretty reasonable approach: Advanced age, especially when combined with known health issues, should be a mark against a candidate - but it shouldn't overwhelm everything else.

    And probabilities are just that.

    Mr Dole picked Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1996 in part because of his vigorous image (he had been a football player). Mr Kemp died in 2009, while Mr Dole is still going strong.