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Will Biden’s age keep him from being reelected?

Young people are the most critical of older politicians, our research finds

- July 20, 2022

Most Americans say they do not want to see Joe Biden run for reelection in 2024. Even among Democrats, only a third say they want the president to seek a second term.

It is tempting to assume that’s because Americans are dissatisfied with Biden’s leadership. Amid inflation worries and economic pessimism, Biden remains unpopular with the public. But when asked why they want a different Democratic nominee in 2024, Democrats are as likely to cite the president’s age as they are his job performance.

At 79, Biden is the oldest person to serve as president, and some people wonder whether he has the energy to handle the job’s demands. Others worry that Biden’s age makes it difficult for him to connect with younger voters.

But even as Democrats lament Biden’s age now, they nonetheless chose him as the party’s nominee in 2020 from a field of other candidates who were largely younger than he. And while most voters may say they think there should be age limits for elective office, they still reelect many older candidates to office. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80; and the current Senate has the oldest average age in its history.

Do people really care about the age of those who represent them?

In a recent paper, we examined how Americans evaluate younger and older politicians. We find that people are happy to support older candidates in elections — but are less likely to approve of their performance in office.

Biden’s low poll numbers are exactly what we should expect

How we did our research

We start by considering how politician age affects public job approval of members of Congress, drawing on data from the 2006-2020 Cooperative Election Studies. The surveys were administered online by YouGov using sample matching and were weighted to be nationally representative, taking into account region, voter registration status, age, race/ethnicity, gender and education.

People were asked whether they approve or disapprove of the job performance of the person who represents them in Congress. After accounting for factors including partisan similarity and length of service, we find people rate the job performance of older members of Congress lower than they do younger members’ job performance.

Young people are the most critical of older politicians

Some people have argued that Biden’s age is particularly a problem for winning over young voters. We tested for age differences in our congressional approval data. Indeed, the CCES data suggests that young people are the most likely to penalize members of Congress for their advanced age. The youngest respondents give an approval rating six points higher to a 30-year-old representative than to an 80-year-old one, all else equal. Among older respondents, the penalties for politician age are smaller.

Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak
Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak

Why don’t we see more young people in office?

Young people are more likely to be happy with their member of Congress when that person is younger. Why, then, aren’t more young people in office? We wondered whether older voters are unwilling to support younger candidates in elections, fearing that they lack the experience needed to succeed.

We explored this in a second study with a sample of 1,000 Americans who participated online in the Cooperative Election Study, in a survey fielded in September and October 2020. Respondents were selected to be nationally representative of the U.S. population via sample matching.

So that we could see whether people rate younger candidates more favorably than older candidates, we randomly assigned respondents to read a short vignette about a candidate for state legislature described as either 23, 50, or 77 years old. As you can see in the figure below, people rated the candidate similarly regardless of his age.

And that was true for both younger and older people. During a campaign, our respondents didn’t prefer candidates whose age is closest to theirs — as often happens with many other subcategories, such as race, ethnicity and gender, research finds. This helps explain why, in 2020, Biden was chosen as the Democratic Party nominee from a field of candidates mostly younger than he, and why young people tended to back Bernie Sanders over younger alternatives such as Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg.

Will Biden and Trump face off again in 2024?

Apparently, age isn’t as important to voters as those other categories. Instead of wanting candidates who are close to them in age, young people may prefer politicians who campaign to solve their generation’s concerns.

Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak
Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak

That still doesn’t answer our question: If Americans are willing to support candidates regardless of age, why aren’t more younger politicians in office? We find greater evidence of bias against younger candidates when we consider the traits people associate with younger and older politicians. At the end of the study, respondents were given a list of nine traits and asked which described the candidate they had read about, as shown in the figure below. Our respondents reported that they saw younger candidates as less experienced and less well-qualified. What’s more, they see younger candidates as less likely to be conservative. All this may undercut a general belief that they are viable candidates for office. Of course, there are also practical barriers to young people’s political careers; the Constitution sets minimum age requirements to serve in Congress, and most state legislatures set age-of-candidacy requirements as well. Younger people are less likely to have the connections and funds needed to run for office and many are uninterested in a career in politics.

Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak
Figure: Damon C. Roberts and Jennifer Wolak

Of course, Biden’s age (and that of Trump, his potential opponent) isn’t the only thing that will be on voters’ minds in 2024. In the midterms this fall, inflation, gas prices, reproductive rights and other practical concerns loom large. It’s hard to predict what will be uppermost by 2024. While our research suggests that Biden’s age is likely to hurt his public approval, particularly among younger voters, many other things will also matter if he decides to run again in 2024.

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Damon C. Roberts (@damoncroberts) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Jennifer Wolak (@j_wolak_) is a professor of political science at Michigan State University.