The Historical Bias Against Old Presidential Candidates

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tags: presidents, Age

Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.  This article was first published on The Reasonable Man (blog).


If Hillary Clinton runs for president in the 2016 cycle (and that seems more likely than not), she will campaign as a 67-year-old and 68-year-old candidate and will actually have turned 69 by the First Tuesday in November 2016.  By historical standards, if elevated, she would hover along the extreme right edge of eldest presidents first elected to office.  Of course, needless to say, Mrs. Clinton possesses many advantages that mitigate her age disadvantage.  Having said that, every casual observer of the American presidency understands the historical bias against age in a run for the  Oval Office.  Even with that foreknowledge, upon closer consideration, the preponderance of the numbers, facts, and trends is quite astonishing.

We have only elected 3 presidents 65 or older in all of American political history.  Ronald Reagan is the oldest (69) and a real outlier in myriad ways.  He is also the only 65-or-older candidate elected since James Buchanan (1856).

In the modern era (post-FDR), actually over the past 120 years, not counting Reagan, we have elected only two presidents in their early sixties (Dwight Eisenhower & George Bush-41).  From the turn of twentieth-century onward, the profile of elected presidents looks incredibly youthful:

51, 56, 55, 54, 50, 62, 43, 55, 52, 69, 64, 46, 54, & 47.

Over the long haul, we have had 18 presidents elected in their fifties (12 of those between 54-57).  We have elected 11 presidents between the ages of 43 and 52.  

An Aside: does the average longer life span skew these statistics over the course of two centuries?  Perhaps.  But keep in mind that the "longer life span" phenomenon remains one of the most misunderstood and misapplied facts in the study of the past.  For example, of the first eightpresidents, one lived into his nineties, four into their eighties, one into his late-seventies, and the other two died at 73 and 67.  Moreover, the overall numbers show a trend toward youth much more pronounced in the modern era than during the early national period.

Presidents Elected (for the First Time) Over the Age of Sixty (1789-1900):

  •  John Adams (61)
  • Andrew Jackson (62) General & Hero
  • William Henry Harrison (67) General & Hero
  • Zachary Taylor (64) General & Hero
  • James Buchanan (65) the Bob Dole or Joe Biden of his day, a career pol and partisan who persevered long enough to find a propitious opening (unlike Dole or Biden)

Presidents Elected (for the First Time) Over the Age of Sixty (1900 - Present):

  •  IKE (62) General & Hero
  • Reagan (69)
  • Bush-41 (64) RR Third Term?

Two Connected Final Points:

  1. Of the handful of presidents who are generally considered successful (16 by my count), this analysis shows a mixed bag for the oldsters: Jackson, IKE, and Reagan proved wildly successful; the others not so much.
  2. Not surprisingly, out of the nine plus-sixty elected presidents, only three won re-election (Jackson at 66, Eisenhower at 66; and Reagan at 73!).

As for Mrs. Clinton, she certainly fits into the category of presidents who offered a compelling reason to transcend the norm.  All of these seasoned citizen-politicians  generally were "unfinished business" kinds of people and / or  "late starters."  All of the generals fall into the late-starting, second-career category as does Reagan.  Mrs. Clinton fits both of those criteria and, like Bush-41 (and to some extent James Buchanan),  she can boast of an intimate connection to a superstar president of recent history.

Of course, regardless of what you may have heard, history does not predict the future (although it always informs the present).  Americans had never elected a Catholic president until we did.  No Republican had ever lost a presidential election on a 6th of November until it happened (2012).  

Will Americans elect a 69-year-old woman in 2016?  Stay Tuned.

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