The Gray Race for the White House

For decades, the Democrats’ path to the presidency has been about offering something new. But the two front-runners are among the oldest candidates ever.

Donald Trump is the oldest first-term president ever. Joe Biden (above) and Bernie Sanders are hoping to beat his record. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

“Joe Biden. He understands what’s happening today.”

The newspaper ad ran a few weeks before the 1972 Senate election in Delaware, when the upstart 29-year-old was challenging a 63-year-old incumbent. The ad, which appeared in The News Journal, Delaware’s major newspaper, happened to run under a column that described Biden’s newly combative strategy in the closing days of the race.

Biden’s approach then, according to the columnist, was “in effect, ‘Dear old dad may have been right for his time—and I love him—but things are different now.’”

The world was changing in the 1970s. It’s changing even more now. But the early months (at least) of the 2020 race are going to be dominated by three white men in their 70s arguing about how to make America great again: Donald Trump is turning 73 in June, Biden is 76, Bernie Sanders is 77.

Trump wants age to be an issue—he thinks it helps him. “I look at Joe, I don’t know about him … They’re all making me look very young, both in terms of age and in terms of energy,” he said on Friday, getting onto a helicopter on the White House lawn. “I am a young, vibrant man.”

Before they’re able to take on Trump, however, Biden and Sanders will have to confront a field full of candidates young enough to be their children. Five of the Democrats running weren’t even born when Biden first ran for Senate and Sanders was still just a gadfly in local Vermont politics. Beto O’Rourke was about a month old when that News Journal column ran. And the race is happening as young people are voting more: Census data released earlier this week found that from 2014 to 2018, there was a 79 percent jump in voting among people ages 18 to 29.

Biden and Sanders aides told me they see the age of the other Democratic front-runner as largely neutralizing the age issue, even as internal worries persist that it could prove one of their biggest liabilities with voters. They believe Trump helps blunt the issue too: He still refuses to release his medical records, and he’s better known for live-tweeting Fox News than for the kind of marathon schedules that both Biden and Sanders like to keep up on the campaign trail.

But at least 18 Democrats running for president think voters want something fresh: not only someone younger, but someone who represents a whole new start—that’s the best way the party can contrast itself with Trump. Several candidates’ aides have quietly pushed an argument about Biden in particular that’s similar to his own old “dear old dad” attack.

Biden has made clear in private conversations with aides that he doesn’t like being seen as old, and that’s part of why he won’t engage in any suggestion that he should serve only one term.

“It’s a legitimate question to ask, about my age,” Biden said yesterday on The View, during his first interview of the race. “It’s a question of—hopefully with age comes wisdom, and experience—can things get better?” Responding directly to Trump’s swipe earlier in the day, he said, “If he looks young and vibrant compared to me, I should probably go home.”

For decades, the Democratic path to winning the White House has been about offering something new—from John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Biden is counting on the power of nostalgia—of the Obama era, of a calmer time—to overcome that in this race, especially with Democrats nervous about winning and feeling exhausted from the past three years. Trump is already the oldest first-term president ever. Maybe the next one will be older.

An ad from joe biden’s 1972 senate campaign

Referring to Biden, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told me, “He’s not running against a spring chicken” and “looks, like, 15 years younger than Trump.” And anyway, Rendell said, Biden is in the race “because of his character and his intelligence, not because of his youth.” Rendell is 75 years old himself. (Biden’s campaign declined to comment.)

The Democrat under 70 who’s currently doing the best, of course, is the youngest one: 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, who’s less than half the age of Biden and Sanders. His whole campaign is centered on the idea that he’ll be alive long enough to experience the full consequences of decisions the next president makes. When asked at an appearance back home in South Bend, Indiana, on Monday why he thinks he’s currently polling third, Buttigieg argued that “there’s a lot of excitement around the idea of something completely different. And there’s a lot of energy for generational change.” When I pointed out that two candidates in their 70s, Sanders and Biden, are ahead of him in the polls, Buttigieg cited their high name ID as an explanation. “The thing that’s surprising us is that perhaps being one of the very least well known, we’ve been able to vault to the top tier—and I think the generational energy helps to explain that,” he said.

Buttigieg has a bit in his stump speech that there is no winning message for 2020 that features the word back or again. On Thursday, asked by reporters what his candidacy’s message to the world was, Biden said, “America’s coming back like we used to be.”

Sanders had more young supporters in 2016—and has more young supporters in this run—than almost anyone else. But age is still on the minds of his aides. His campaign pollster, Ben Tulchin, told me he agrees that Trump is the best way to blunt the potential weakness, and argued that, from the numbers he’s seen, he doesn’t think Democrats will be as caught up on age as some might believe. Echoing an argument Biden’s fans and allies have also made, Tulchin said that in this race, Democrats are looking for people they’d trust with the management of the country. “If you asked, ‘Do you want someone experienced or someone who brings a new perspective?,’ overwhelmingly, people go with experience,” he said.

“Trump, Bernie, and Biden being old white guys—it’s not going to matter to anybody, because it’s all the same,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’s top strategist in 2016.

An older female candidate, however, would almost definitely be viewed differently. In 2016, conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health were driven largely by her age and gender, and she’s younger than Trump, Biden, and Sanders. No similar theories emerged when Sanders, in March, fell in the shower while on a campaign swing in South Carolina. Though he had to appear at several events with a large gauze bandage on his forehead, covering several stitches, most people likely didn’t even know the accident happened.

The question about age isn’t just a political one. Multiple White House alumni have told me over the past few years that they worry about how an older person could handle the job, given the stress and the schedule involved. While they’re generally wary of saying anything publicly for fear of insulting the specific candidates or being accused of ageism, one former aide joked to me in December about wanting to write an op-ed with the headline, “In Defense of Ageism at the White House.”

Others have been more open in grappling with this. “Can politicians our age be effective presidents? It’s a question that can provoke strong, often pained reactions from my contemporaries,” wrote Robert Kaiser, a 76-year-old former Washington Post editor, in an op-ed earlier this month. He called into question the mental acuity and stamina of people in their 70s and older. At the end of their respective second terms, Trump would be 78, Biden 86, Sanders 87. Older adults “have difficulties with tasks that require dividing or switching attention, like cooking while chatting on the phone,” Kaiser wrote. “On tests of reasoning, memory and cognitive speed, the average scores for adults in their early 70s were near the 20th percentile of the population, whereas the average performance for adults in their early 20s was near the 75th percentile.”

Of course, these are averages, and the trio of septuagenarians in the race could easily argue they are the exception. For his part, Ben LaBolt, a former press aide to Obama, told me age shouldn’t necessarily be a disqualifying factor. “We’ve had older presidents who’ve done a good job. There are plenty of older CEOs running massive organizations across the country,” LaBolt said. But, he added, age does make “more relevant who their VP candidate is, because the heartbeat-away-from-the-presidency question becomes very real. It makes it more critical that an older president surrounds himself with younger people who are technically savvy and realize the emerging moment that we’re living in.”

When I pressed LaBolt—he saw firsthand how demanding the presidency can be, not to mention how it visibly ages every American president—he acknowledged that “there are people who served past their prime.” He pointed to West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who died in office at age 93 and was known to be in poor shape in his later years. “It’s up to the candidate and the electorate to judge things like physical health and mental acuity,” he said. “And it’s on the candidates to prove that during the campaign.”

“For me, when that issue comes up, it always leaves a funny taste in my mouth,” said Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, who has endorsed Biden. “We’re always drilled that you’re not supposed to be looking at a person’s age, or race, or sex. The question is supposed to be, ‘Can you do the job?’”

On Thursday evening, I caught up with Brendan Boyle, a 42-year-old congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, as he was on his way to Biden’s first big fundraiser in the city. Boyle, who in his first Democratic primary campaign beat an older candidate trying to stage a political comeback, told me he doesn’t think Biden’s age is going to hurt him with younger voters.

“It is absolutely true that much of the energy and enthusiasm is coming from younger and more diverse voters,” Boyle said. “But it’s simultaneously true that the overwhelmingly majority of House seats we picked up in 2018 are areas where Biden is popular.” Many of the people who won those seats, though, were younger. The average age in the House dropped 10 years after the 2018 elections.