It doesn’t bode well.
In November, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, will be the oldest major candidate poised to win election to the White House at age 72. Campaign McCain has not shrunk from the issue, even boasting they may go the way of Reagan and exploit “Obama’s youth and inexperience” for political purposes. McCain humorously confronted the issue head-on in an amusing Mother’s Day advertisement featuring his 96 year old mom, Roberta. While charming, there is no escaping McCain is indeed a white-haired senior citizen. McCain’s self-deprecation and assurance his genes are up to the challenge of the modern day presidency aside, the ad only underscores the dramatic contrast with the youthful and charismatic persona of his presumptive competitor, Senator Barack Obama. Modern presidential election history shows the older candidate is more likely than not to be humbled by the younger challenger.
During the 28 presidential elections held since 1896, the older candidate won 19 contest versus 9 won by the younger candidate. (DATA) However, on seventeen of those occasions, the older winning candidate was either the incumbent or there was no incumbent in the race. Only twice did the older candidate defeat the younger incumbent – Reagan and Woodrow Wilson, who was aided by TR’s third party run against sitting President Taft. In the 9 instances the younger candidate won, the circumstances were more varied; three times each did the younger candidate win when he was the incumbent, when he was the challenger, and when the incumbent was not running.
Objectors to the age issue like to invoke Ronald Reagan, to date the oldest person to enter the White House at age 69, but Reagan was, as usual, unique. In the post-World War II era (1948-2004), Reagan was the only older candidate to defeat a younger candidate. In contrast to Wilson, who was only a year older than Taft, Reagan was more than a decade older – 13 years to be exact. (CHART)
Overall, the post-World War II period has been more favorable to younger candidates. In the fifteen elections between 1948 and 2004, the older candidate only won three more times than the younger candidate. Nonetheless, the older candidate either had to be the incumbent or face no incumbent at all. Again, the younger candidate was capable of winning as an incumbent, challenger to a sitting president, or challenger for an open seat.
For the most part, the focus on a candidate’s age is a modern phenomenon. Ever since JFK invoked “vigor” during his campaign and memorably declared “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century”, modern presidential candidates have had dual challenges. One, making age an advantage as part of an appeal to “turn the page” while two, assuring supporters (and detractors) his or her age is not indicative of naiveté or inexperience. Democratic candidates have usually had the advantage in this case; victorious conservatives are, almost by definition, older. If one recalls Barry Goldwater’s adage that conservatism is merely ideas based on the successes of the past, attaining the wisdom gained from witnesses these success will require some aging. (Young conservatives rarely achieve equivalent levels of reverence – they simply come off as squares). Democrats from JFK to Gary Hart to Bill Clinton to Obama have each (somewhat plausibly) proclaimed their candidacies as the vanguard of generational change in the face of stodgy incumbents and/or ideas. (Of course, less remembered though is how slim their victories were. Neither received a majority of the vote; JFK won by only two-tenths of a point and Clinton failed as both challenger and incumbent.)
Nevertheless, the JFK and two Clinton victories are instructive. Each was more than twenty years the junior in comparison to the incumbent. (CHART). In 1960, JFK was running against his generational compatriot, Richard Nixon, but the born for television candidate was twenty-seven years younger than the incumbent, seventy-year-old two-time heart attack survivor, Dwight Eisenhower. JFK won a squeaker, but was easily the more attractive of the two representatives of the youthful and newly ascendant World War II generation.
In 1992, the World War II generation had run its course and Baby Boomer Bill Clinton was determined to overcome the long odds of defeating President George H.W. Bush. The Clinton campaign produced footage of the candidate shaking hands with JFK when he was sixteen, a not so subtle appeal to those similarly inclined for a generational change. Clinton needed the third party candidacy of Ross Perot to achieve Bush’s defeat, but the twenty-two year gap vis-à-vis Bush amplified his change message. He readily overturned political conventions by appearing on late night talk shows, campaigning on MTV, and surmounted once fatal personal offenses, such as infidelity, drug use, and draft dodging, primarily because he could count on his generational peers having dealt with the same shortcomings. In his re-election, he breezed to (a minority) victory against 73-year-old former Sen. Bob Dole, twenty-three years his senior and the last of the World War II generation candidates.
While Obama was born in 1961 and technically part of the Baby Boom generation, his posture and record leaves him identifiable as part of Generation X. Accordingly, Obama has unhesitatingly stated the need to move beyond the “battles of the sixties” and identifying JFK and Reagan, bookends of the World War II generation, as prime movers of America’s political trajectory (and not JFK’s self-appointed heir, Bill Clinton). In the same vein as “just do it,” a famous Gen X motto, Obama declared his “frame of reference is what works.”
Furthermore, Obama’s success with the youth vote has been absolutely critical in this contest and, in terms of canvassing innovations, rapidly becoming the stuff of campaign legend. Bill Clinton wasted his opportunity to be the Andy Jackson of the Internet age. McCain and Dean first demonstrated the potential of fundraising on the web. But Obama is truly the first major political leader whose strategic use of the net has been fundamental to his rise.
In the latest Atlantic Monthly1, Joshua Green recounts how Obama’s integration of web-based social networking capabilities into his campaign has resulted in colossal successes -- 750,000 volunteers, 1,276,000 donors, and almost $200 million raised. Separately, Marc Ambinder note how FDR skillfully used radio to advance the New Deal and JFK capitalized on television more ably than others and asks whether Obama could do the same with the Internet? In light of how prepared his campaign has been for this long primary slog, Obama’s proposals for a government-wide chief technology officer and an expenditure database may signal more than just one-time innovations, but perhaps more significant changes to a notoriously sclerotic federal bureaucracy. Combine these breakthroughs with his fundamental message of hope and change and Obama has cemented a solid hold on the fascination of the younger generation.
On the horizon looms the rise of the Millenial Generation, which was the only key demographic carried by Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and went heavily for the Democratic Party in the 2006 mid-term congressional elections. As reported recently by Reader’s Digest, Obama garners a 63-31 favorable-unfavorable rating, twenty points ahead of McCain who scored an ugly 42-44. More pointedly, “by a 32-point margin, Millennials say they voted in the Democratic rather than Republican primaries in 2008 and chose Obama over Clinton 56 to 36 (57 to 43 in caucus states).”
In this milieu, McCain is a generational anomaly. Neither a member of the World War II and Baby Boom generation, McCain was born in 1936, part of the “Silent Generation” born between 1925 and 1945, just in between the more famous aforementioned generations. McCain’s only generational contemporaries in this regard are former president Jimmy Carter2 and failed 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
Carter was an outlier among the long line of presidents from the World War II and the Baby Boom generations and it showed. Serving in Korea just after World War II but before Vietnam, he neither received the deference shown to the “greatest generation” nor shared the scars of the turbulent debates and protests that shaped the Sixties. Indeed, Carter once argued one could campaign left and govern right, a stark contrast to the centrist integrity of the World War II generation and the ideological fervor of the Baby Boomer set.
Similarly, Dukakis served in the US military after Korea and served in the Massachusetts state legislature throughout the Sixties. Building a reputation as a technocrat, he ran in 1988 on a campaign devoid of ideology and premised on “competence.” Despite the similarity to JFK in hailing from Massachusetts to challenge a vice-presidential heir apparent after a popular two term Republican president, Dukakis lost in a near-landslide to older World War II hero, George H.W. Bush.
(While Carter may and Dukasis especially approximate American historian William Manchester’s depiction of this age group as "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent" more than McCain, New York Times reporter Sam Tanenhaus interestingly pointed out that McCain “belongs instead to another [Silent Generation] type better known through popular culture than politics, in the personas of Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean, more smoldering than silent, carrying on a private war with authority.” Make a visit to the US Naval Academy dormitories where Carter and McCain’s portraits hang (below) and one can readily detect this generation’s divergent personas – sober submariner and cocky fighter jock.)
To address concerns about his age, McCain has been variously advised to pick a conspicuously youthful vice presidential candidate or pledge to serve only one term. (McCain would be advised to act expeditiously as well. Once Hillary Clinton ends her bid and begins campaigning for the Democratic ticket, you can be sure her streetfighter instincts will result in hints his advanced age might not even survive the campaign season. Don’t smirk, it’s happened before. Horace Greeley, another famously maverick liberal Republican, lost the election but died before the Electoral College voted.)
Whatever action McCain takes, he faces long odds. Obama is twenty-five years younger than McCain, similar to JFK and Clinton. McCain is a decade older than George W. Bush, like Reagan, but as has been well recorded by now, McCain has nowhere the affection and support Reagan engendered or the motivated and unified party Reagan presided over. JFK, Clinton and generational change… the Reagan Revolution… Obama, “change you can believe in,” and rising millenials… McCain will need far more than his feisty mother.
1 June 2008, The Atlantic Monthly: “The Amazing Money Machine” by Joshua Green, and “HisSpace” by Marc Ambinder
2 While Carter was born in 1924, technically part of the World War II generation, Carter did not serve in that war; he is a veteran of the Korean War.