Thursday, March 23, 2023
March 23, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Leubsdorf: Not your grandfather’s race

Age may be crucial issue for 2024 presidential election

The Columbian

In touting her own presidential qualifications, Nikki Haley sounded a familiar theme that is likely to be heard a lot in the 2024 presidential race. It’s a potential problem for both current front-runners.

“I think it’s time for a new generational change,” the 51-year-old former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador told Fox News. “I don’t think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in D.C.”

Those words were presumably aimed mostly at President Joe Biden, who is already 80. But they could also be used against former President Donald Trump, who would reach the octogenarian level if elected to another term.

And Haley’s theme — likely to be used by other 2024 hopefuls in both parties — is one that has proved very successful over the years in helping younger, lesser-known hopefuls defeat older rivals.

John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were all in their 40s when they were elected president, either succeeding or defeating far older rivals. In an election where the current front-runners are 80 and 76, the tendency of American voters to choose youth over age and new over old looms as a potential 2024 factor.

Biden, of course, was already the oldest person ever elected president when he defeated Trump in 2020. Now 80 and sometimes showing it, he would reach his 86th birthday if he won and completed a second term.

At present, there are no major Democratic primary challengers to the former vice president. But his overall job approval continues to hover in the low 40s, dangerous ground for a president planning to seek reelection.

And Biden’s mishandling of the flap over the classified papers found in his home and former office reminded some Democrats why he remains a shaky 2024 choice.

Potentially serious Democratic alternatives — if the race opens up — range from 17 years younger than Biden (Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar) to 39 years younger (Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg). Some Democrats fear the president’s age could become a serious problem if Republicans choose a far younger nominee.

That could well happen. At present, the 76-year-old Trump remains the front-runner in GOP polls despite increasing doubts among party leaders about his general election prospects. He’s clearly the rival Biden would most like to face.

But presidential rematches are rare in U.S. history — only one since 1900, President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 repeat defeat of Adlai Stevenson.

Trump’s chief rival in most GOP polls is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former ally reelected last November in a landslide. At 44, he is the youngest among the best-known Republican candidates and 32 years younger than Trump.


A true measurement of the Florida governor’s political strength as a presidential candidate won’t come until he formally enters the race, presumably later this year. But polls show he could become a formidable challenger to the president.

The fact that he is 36 years younger than Biden is also likely to be a plus; despite his youth, he has substantial governmental experience: three terms in Congress and two as governor of the nation’s third most populous state.

DeSantis is not the only Republican with a substantial age advantage over Biden. At least six others who may seek the White House would be in their 50s at the time of the 2024 election: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu; Haley; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin; and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

If Biden chose not to run, the Democrats would pick a younger candidate who would either take away the GOP’s age advantage — or give them one against Trump.

Besides Buttigieg and Klobuchar, possibilities include California Rep. Ro Khanna, 46; Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, both 51; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 53; and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, 55.

Age won’t, of course, be the only factor that will impact the 2024 election. Not only did Biden beat Trump, but Ronald Reagan won the presidency twice over younger rivals, and George H.W. Bush did once.

All things being equal, however, Americans tend to prefer a young, vigorous leader over an older one. And that could cause problems for Biden — or Trump.