by Edison Research Vice President Mary Meyn
When President Trump was sworn into office at the age of 70 on January 20, 2017, he became the oldest person to begin his first term as President. Previously, that record was held by President Ronald Reagan who was 69 when he was sworn in for his first term. With Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton also approaching 70, age was part of the political conversation, but not a significant factor during the 2016 campaign.
However, as the Democrats select their nominee, age has again become an issue in presidential politics. The three leading candidates according to recent polling – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders – are all in their seventies. If one of those candidates becomes the nominee, both of the major party candidates running for President will be more than 70 years old.
Age has been a campaign issue in other elections, and the Exit Polls provide a historical look back on voters’ opinions on the subject. (Click the following graphic to enlarge.)
At the time of the 2008 election, John McCain, the Republican Presidential nominee, was 72 and Barack Obama was 47. Sixty percent of voters said that the age of the candidates was not a factor in their vote for president, according to the Exit Poll. The 40% of voters who said that age was a factor in their vote, whether it was the most important factor or a minor one, voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. John McCain ultimately lost the national vote by 7%.
In 1996, Bob Dole was the Republican Presidential nominee. Had he been elected President, he would have been 73 years old at the time of his swearing in. The 1996 Exit Poll asked voters if Bob Dole’s age would interfere with his ability to effectively serve as President, and 64% of voters said no, it would not. Bob Dole lost the election to Bill Clinton by 9% of the national vote.
Age was also an issue in the political career of Strom Thurmond, who served as a US Senator from South Carolina until he retired at age 100, making him the oldest Senator. In his 1996 reelection campaign, Thurmond was 93 years old. While Thurmond ultimately won reelection in a landslide (by a 31% margin), 55% of South Carolina voters did think that age would interfere with his ability to serve effectively as Senator.
While we don’t know yet how much of a factor age will be in the 2020 Presidential election, we can look to exit polls in previous elections for a historical perspective.
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Edison Research conducts survey research and provides strategic information in over 50 countries for clients including AMC Theatres, AMC Theatres, Amazon, Apple, The Brookings Institute, Facebook, The Gates Foundation, Google, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, Oracle, Pandora, The Pew Research Center, Samsung, Spotify, and SiriusXM Radio. The national tracking study The Infinite Dial® and the syndicated Share of Ear® are two of the most widely cited studies in the audio space. Edison is also the leading podcast research company in the world and has conducted research for NPR, Slate, ESPN, PodcastOne, WNYC Studios, and many more companies in the podcasting space. Edison’s network of more than 20,000 experienced interviewers allows the company to conduct research in almost any location. Since 2004, Edison Research has been the sole provider of Election Day data to the National Election Pool. For the 2020 U.S. elections, Edison will provide exit polls and will tabulate the national vote across every county in the United States for ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and NBC News.