The 2020 U.S. presidential election was historic in many ways, but one of the most striking features was the age of the candidates. Donald Trump, who was 74 years old at the time of the election, and Joe Biden, who was 77, were the oldest presidential contenders in American history. Biden, who won the election, became the oldest person to assume the presidency at 78 years old.
The age of the candidates sparked a lot of debate and speculation among voters, media, and experts. Some questioned whether older politicians have the physical and mental stamina to lead the country effectively, especially in times of crisis. Others argued that older politicians have the wisdom and experience that younger ones lack, and that they can appeal to a diverse and aging electorate.
But how do voters actually perceive older politicians? And how does age affect their voting preferences? To answer these questions, we can look at some recent research that examines the role of age in politics.
Age and voting patterns
One of the most consistent findings in political science is that age is strongly associated with voting preferences. Younger voters tend to favor Democratic candidates, while older voters tend to favor Republican candidates. This pattern has been observed in many U.S. elections, including the 2020 presidential election.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis 1, 68% of voters under 30 supported Biden in 2020, compared with 42% of voters 65 and older. Conversely, 57% of voters 65 and older supported Trump, compared with 30% of voters under 30. This age gap was similar to the one in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won 58% of voters under 30 and Trump won 53% of voters 65 and older.
There are several possible explanations for this age gap in voting preferences. One is that younger and older voters have different policy priorities and ideological orientations. For example, younger voters may be more concerned about issues such as climate change, health care, racial justice, and immigration, while older voters may be more focused on issues such as national security, taxes, social security, and Medicare. Younger voters may also be more liberal and progressive than older voters on social and cultural issues.
Another explanation is that younger and older voters have different generational experiences that shape their political views. For example, younger voters may have been influenced by events such as the Great Recession, the Obama presidency, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic, while older voters may have been influenced by events such as the Cold War, the Reagan presidency, the Vietnam War, and the 9/11 attacks.
A third explanation is that younger and older voters have different levels of political engagement and participation. Older voters tend to be more interested in politics, more informed about political issues, and more likely to vote than younger voters. This may give them more influence over electoral outcomes and policy decisions.
Age and candidate evaluation
Another aspect of age in politics is how voters evaluate candidates based on their age. Research suggests that voters use age as a cue to infer other characteristics of candidates, such as their competence, strength, leadership ability, charisma, honesty, and health.
Some studies have found that voters tend to prefer candidates who are in their 40s or 50s over candidates who are younger or older. This may reflect a perception that candidates in this age range have a balance of experience and vitality that makes them suitable for political office.
For example, a study by Klofstad et al2 tested whether voters discriminate on candidate age. The results showed that male and female candidates in their 40s and 50s were preferred over candidates in their 30s, 60s, and 70s. The authors suggested that this may be because candidates in their 40s and 50s have reached a point in their life cycle when their voice pitch is at its lowest, which signals competence and strength to voters.
Other studies have found that voters tend to prefer younger candidates over older candidates. This may reflect a perception that younger candidates are more innovative, energetic, adaptable, and forward-looking than older candidates.
For example, a study by Banducci et al. examined how candidate age affected voter preferences in European parliamentary elections. The results showed that younger candidates received more votes than older candidates across different countries and party families. The authors argued that this may be because younger candidates are seen as more responsive to changing social conditions and voter demands.
Age and voter bias
A final issue related to age in politics is whether voters are biased against older politicians. Research suggests that some voters may hold negative stereotypes or prejudices about older politicians based on their age alone.
For example, a study by Cutler explored how voter bias affected evaluations of Ronald Reagan’s performance during his presidency. The results showed that some voters had lower expectations of Reagan’s abilities and higher perceptions of his errors because of his age. The author concluded that age bias may have harmed Reagan’s public image and political support.
Another example is a study by Hehman et al. that investigated how voter bias influenced perceptions of Hillary Clinton’s health during the 2016 presidential campaign. The results showed that some voters believed that Clinton was less healthy and more likely to die in office than Trump because of her age and gender. The authors suggested that age and gender bias may have damaged Clinton’s credibility and electability.
Age is an important factor in politics, both for voters and candidates. Voters have different preferences and evaluations of candidates based on their age, and candidates may face different challenges and opportunities depending on their age. Age may also interact with other factors, such as race, gender, education, and ideology, to influence political behavior and outcomes.
As the U.S. population ages and becomes more diverse, the role of age in politics may change as well. Future research may explore how age affects the representation and participation of different groups in the political system, as well as the effects of age on policy preferences and outcomes.