Age No Longer a Taboo in US Politics

The U.S. risks a presidential battle of two contenders with a combined age of 160 years.

“I’m 198 years old,” said Joe Biden at the beginning of this year, attempting to yet again turn his age from a political topic into a joke. The results are mixed — a year before the November 2024 presidential election the current president looks like a shoo-in as his own party’s nominee. His approval ratings appear hardened at around 40% with high marks from Democrats and very low marks from Republicans.

Biden’s problem is with independent voters unaffiliated with either party. For them the question of age becomes ever more important. In the past the question of U.S. political candidates’ age was taboo, rarely broached by politicians and never broken by the media. Today, beyond Biden, who on election day in 2024 will be a few days shy of 82, one can look at his likely challenger, Donald Trump, who will be 78. Thus, the candidates’ combined age will be 160.

The picture gets worse when one considers the age of the possible nominees at the end of their hypothetical second term. This is not limited to presidential candidates. The fact that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (81) “froze” twice, plus the general “confused” state of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (90), suggest a larger systemic problem.

The breaking of the age taboo is evident from the avalanche of sociological polls exploring the age of the presidential candidates, especially those focused on Biden, as he has received the lion’s share of pollsters’ attention. According to YouGov’s May 2023 poll, 70% of Americans are concerned about Biden’s health and mental state, including 50% who are very concerned. The percentage among Democrats is high at 48% and the overall numbers are not helped by those who believe Kamala Harris is ready to take over from Biden — 35%.

A rematch between Biden and Trump may be the battle no one wants to see — apart from the base of each party which is driving each man’s nomination. In the U.S., only registered party members can vote for the nominees. This may lead to a disconnect between party loyalists and the wider electorate, a difference most visible in 2024 when two unpopular candidates may meet for the second time. Of course, there is still a year to go, and much can change in politics, but for now, developments in the U.S. make a change of heart for either registered Democrats or Republicans unlikely.

Trump, Despite Everything

A year before its first primary contest, the Republican Party faces a paradox. The process of transforming the party into Trump’s private fan club seems to be complete, as the indictments on charges relating to classified documents and transition-of-power did not hurt his approval among Republicans nor allow other candidates, such as Ron DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence, a chance to advance.

According to the latest polls of Republican voters, after all his legal troubles, Trump leads DeSantis with over 40 percentage points. Pence and others, such as Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, are far behind.

The absurdity comes from the likelihood that nominating Trump is almost certain to ensure a Republican loss against a none too popular president. Polling consistently shows that DeSantis has a consistently higher chance of beating Biden in key states, meaning the Florida governor could win over constituents outside hard-core Republicans. Despite this, DeSantis has low approval ratings among Republicans and would be weak in a match-up against Trump.

There are several reasons for Trump’s deficiencies in a general election. First, after losing the 2020 election, Trump cocooned with people who agree (or actively insist) on his view that the 2020 election was rigged — so much so that Trump created his own social network. This has had two consequences: Trump not only communicates exclusively with those who have already decided to vote for him, but he is also repelling those who believe he is wrong or are at least tired of his complaints.

Second, Trump has long shed some of the benefits he enjoyed during his strong initial candidacy. In 2016 he was a political unknown, allowing different strata of the U.S. electorate to project their own politics onto him. In addition, as Ben Shapiro, chief editor of the conservative Daily Wire and an influential voice in Republican circles said, even if Trump’s insistence on a rigged election is to be believed, he has not offered solutions that would stop the hypothetical rigging of the 2024 election.

Trump’s own age is his third weakness facing the 2024 election. In 2020, Trump insisted on making Biden’s age an important theme of his campaign even though, at the time, Trump was not young; now he is as old as Biden was in 2020. Trump’s aging appearance is obvious and could be used against him by opponents within his own party. DeSantis, for example, is more than 30 years younger than Trump. Even Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, is 64 which, in this modern day, could be seen as a politician in budding adolescence.

Ironically or not, if there is something that anti-Trump Republicans can hope for, it is for Trump to spend November 2024’s election in prison. That is not an impossibility. Since leaving office, Trump has been beset by legal troubles. Some of the cases against him are civil, some have concluded, some are against his companies and not the man himself. But Trump’s big problem is the latest criminal cases: 91 total charges related to the disclosure of classified information and attempts at changing the election outcome in 2020, charges filed in four jurisdictions. Even a partial conviction carries the risk of prison time.

Against Biden — Kennedy Jr. and Almost Nobody Else

The Democratic nomination battle is even more of a foregone conclusion. While at the national level, the current president is just as popular as Trump was during much of his tenure, Biden has fulfilled voter expectations in his own party and unless the issue of his age goes from being a theoretical to being a practical problem, it is highly unlikely that another Democrat will beat him to the nomination.

In fact, there is no serious competition at the moment; the big names from the 2020 nomination process have decided to stand aside.

Biden’s strongest challenger is Robert Kennedy Jr., son and thus nephew of two Democratic Party icons: Robert and John Kennedy, respectively. The strange thing is that Kennedy’s politics are the opposite of those held by the vast majority of Democrats. Kennedy became famous, not so much through his last name, but through his criticism of Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates and Biden in relation to their handling of COVID-19. Robert Kennedy describes it all in his book, “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health.”

Kennedy’s thesis is much more popular among Republican voters; Democrats see him as a connoisseur of conspiracy theories and an outright anti-vaxxer — not only because of his position on COVID-19 and vaccines, but also due to his proclamations from the early 2000s, when he spread theories on other vaccines’ link to autism. Kennedy is more in agreement with moderate Democratic policy. For example, he sharply disagreed with the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision on ending race-conscious admissions.

It is important to note that despite Kennedy’s weak media coverage and controversial opinions, he is surprisingly popular. According to an August 2023 HarrisX poll, about 20% of Democrats would support Kennedy over Biden during the primaries in 2024. In other polls, however, Kennedy’s support is much lower, at around 6%.

Kennedy is thus the only strong Democratic challenger to Biden, yet his nomination is statistically a near impossibility. Ironically, even if Kennedy were the nominee, he would not change the average candidate age in 2024 much: Kennedy will be 70. Maybe U.S. politics is difficult for those who have less than seven decades of life experience.

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