Our nation, so recently transfixed by race and gender, has narrowed its eyes to scrutinize yet another cultural issue—age.
Consider the presidential contenders. John McCain, a seventy-two-year-old who spent more than five years as a POW in Vietnam and whose physical scars include the vestiges of a protracted battle against melanoma pitted against Barack Obama, a lean forty-seven-year-old who proclaims himself to be post-Boomer, post-race, and post-partisan.
Conventional wisdom might hold that the older candidate has an edge, as older voters traditionally turn out in numbers far greater than younger voters. But so far, this election has been about proving conventional wisdom, well, conventional.
Let’s take a look at the reasons age does matter—reasons that may make a White House residency elusive for the senior citizen in the race.
10. Social Security
John McCain told the Wall Street Journal in March that he supports privatizing Social Security—President Bush’s initiative that failed miserably. Baby Boomers and their elders, facing retirement and plunging stock market portfolios, will be wary about voting for someone who wants to reinvent Social Security.
9. Swing States
Pundits may focus on who can win Florida and Pennsylvania, two swing states that the Population Reference Bureau ranks number one and number two, respectively, for the number of elderly residents. But let’s turn the paradigm around and look at the swing states with the youngest populations, and those therefore more likely to go for Obama. Take Georgia, for example: the third youngest state in the country (behind only Utah and Alaska in terms of youthful population), one with a very large African-American population, and with half the state’s population residing in the Democratic-leaning city of Atlanta. Georgia voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Let’s not forget the battleground states of Nevada and Virginia, the seventh and eighth youngest states.
8. Recent History
Consider the last time the general election candidates represented different generations. It was 1996, and a fifty-year-old Bill Clinton ran for reelection against Bob Dole, who was seventy-three. Bob Dole’s embarrassing tumble at a California rally agitated concerns about his age—and seemed to catapult him to his next career hocking Viagra on TV.
7. Media Spin
Whether or not it’s fair, the media is now parsing the words of McCain and Obama for ageist cut-downs. Take the recent New York Times article by Adam Nagourney, who implied that Obama’s supporters said McCain seemed “confused” as a way to call into question his mental lucidity. Likewise, Nagourney asserted that when McCain and his advisers “refer to Mr. Obama as uniformed, or inexperienced, or unsophisticated in the ways of the world, the underlying message is that Mr. Obama is too young to be president.” Look for the media to pore over the phrases used by both campaigns to paint a war of words over age.
If Obama takes McCain up on his invitation to a series of debates and town hall forums, we may be reminded of the famous 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was the first-ever televised presidential debate and, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Nixon arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt and refused makeup to improve his color and lighten his five o’clock shadow. Kennedy, on the other hand, was tan, confident, and well rested. The visual contrast was extreme—despite an evenly matched debate—and Kennedy experienced a bump in support.
5. Vice Presidential Nominee
Because of McCain’s age, there will be more pressure on him to pick a strong vice presidential candidate. If he picks someone who is younger than he is, thereby adding youth to the ticket, it could exaggerate his own advanced age. If he picks someone who is his age, voters may feel uncomfortable about the ticket’s advanced age. Meanwhile, if Obama picks someone who is closer to McCain’s age (or at least splits their twenty-five-year age gap), it will likely help his ticket seem more experienced, and less green. The only way Obama can fumble on this account is by picking a vice presidential candidate as young as he is.
4. Changing Voter Demographics
Young voters nearly doubled turnout from 2000, with 6.5 million votes cast by people under the age of thirty, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Among Democrats, Obama collected 60 percent of the young vote, while McCain captured only 34 percent—barely beating out Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Young voters participating in the general election could challenge the notion that the most powerful political block is the elderly.
3. Pop Culture IQ
While McCain references the song “Barbara Ann,” which the Beach Boys popularized in 1965, Obama gets dirt off his shoulders Jay-Z style. This could, of course, backfire on Obama, but considering our US Weekly-obsessed nation, it’s more likely that references to 1960s all-white pop bands might start to seem a little out of touch.
If you don’t think there is widespread (albeit largely subconscious) prejudice in America against older people, you should check out the Project Implicit Web site. Run by researchers at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington, the Implicit Association Tests demonstrate that although you may not have conscious prejudices, you likely still have underlying subconscious prejudices. Take the test and see whether a deeply rooted preference for younger faces impacts how you make decisions.
1. A Well-Crafted Message
As much as we like to gab about how candidates look, how their personalities unfold, and what their wives are like, most of the American electorate really wants to hear the right message. In this election, look for McCain to stumble as he campaigns against a message of change, of post-Boomer unity, and of transcendence. It may be that his message is just too old—not that he’s too old. And even the oldest slice of the electorate may want to take a chance on a new era.