By Mike Lillis - 03/24/16 06:00 AM EDT
The 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be the oldest match-up in the country’s history.
The Republican front-runner, billionaire Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump used charity money to buy himself signed Tebow helmet: report Sanders: I don't hate Clinton Limbaugh predicts violence from left if Trump wins MORE, will be 70 years old on Election Day, while former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonA summer surprise: the case for CTE reform Sanders: I don't hate Clinton Trump: Hillary probably 'demanded' Lynch meeting MORE, the Democratic favorite, will be 69. If they win their parties’ respective nominations, no pair atop the ballot will have been older, on average, since the nation’s founding.
The dynamic bucks the trend surrounding recent election cycles, which have featured a younger crop of candidates — a list that includes Bill ClintonBill ClintonTrump: Hillary probably 'demanded' Lynch meeting America isn't afraid of the NRA, and Congress shouldn't be, either Report: Lynch will accept FBI recommendation on Clinton email case MORE, who was 46 when he was elected in 1992; George W. Bush, who was 54 in 2000; and Barack ObamaBarack ObamaSocial Security to run dry three years sooner than expected: study Former CIA chief shuts down Trump's calls for waterboarding Clinton camp: Trump's fundraising 'bragging is total bunk' MORE, who was 47 in 2008. That year, Obama’s youth was seen as an advantage over his rival, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWhich GOP pols will actually show up at the convention? Trump bucks military on waterboarding Overnight Defense: Pentagon lifts transgender ban | Navy says Iran broke law by detaining sailors MORE (R-Ariz.), who would have been the oldest president sworn into office, at age 72.
Lawmakers and political experts off Capitol Hill are quick to note an obvious reason why older candidates are running — and winning — in the current race for the White House: People are simply living longer and retiring later, and voters have adapted to the switch.
“There’s a general understanding in this society that we are aging, as a society, and that 70 is the new 60,” said Rep. Jim McDermottJim McDermott19 House Democrats' sites hacked at close of gun sit-in 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2016 election Overnight Healthcare: House mental health bill finally moving forward MORE (Wash.), a 79-year-old retiring Democrat who’s supporting Clinton. “Or something like that.”
Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed.
“Having two candidates at this age in 1950 might have been significant,” she said. But not in 2016.
Both Clinton and Trump have performed well with older voters, and both have gone out of their way to court them, vowing to protect Social Security from any benefit cuts — a position that’s particularly controversial for the Republican front-runner.
There’s also the Ronald Reagan factor.
The nation’s 40th president was 69 years old when he was elected in 1980 — the eldest U.S. president to take office in history — and his two-terms sunk the notion that a septuagenarian is too old for the job.
Before Reagan “you would have said that it’s too late to run after you’re 65,” McDermott said. “But not anymore.”
Still, the rigors of the modern-day presidential campaign are significant. Anyone who can survive the strains of the trail, experts say, has already proven he or she has the mettle the job demands — regardless of age. They note that Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: I don't hate Clinton Trump: Hillary probably 'demanded' Lynch meeting Sanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton MORE (I-Vt.), the oldest candidate in the race, at 74, is electrifying crowds — particularly younger voters — across the country.
“We’re not talking about William Henry Harrison, giving his speech and then dropping dead,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. He was referring to the nation’s ninth president, who was 68 years old when he entered the White House in 1841 and died of pneumonia 32 days later.
Another factor gaining attention relates to the experience that age brings. Democrats, in particular, say the resumes of both Clinton and Sanders are providing something like a salve in a turbulent world.
“In these times — economic woes, unrest around the world — we need someone with experience, like Hillary Clinton. That’s what that tells me,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a Clinton backer.
Yet, it is noteworthy that two candidates who qualify for senior citizen discounts are thriving in today’s 24/7 media culture, which tends toward youth.
Clinton’s and Trump’s physical appearances have attracted comments on social media, and the two have traded barbs on the subject. Trump has criticized media reports that suggest his hair isn’t real and claimed Clinton wears a wig. Clinton last summer said her hair is authentic when pressed on the matter. Unlike Reagan, both Trump and Clinton admit to dying their locks.
McDermott says Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWhich GOP pols will actually show up at the convention? Poll: Rubio holds massive lead in primary Rubio: Turkey attack 'directed' by ISIS MORE, a 44-year-old Florida Republican who dropped out after losing his home state, could have used some gray hair.
“[GOP voters] just said, ‘This kid’s too green. Go back and get some gray hair,’ ” McDermott said. “They’re looking for somebody who knows what the hell’s going on, who knows how to deal with things.”
Hess said image matters more than age. He noted that Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzLynch pressured to recuse herself after Clinton tarmac meeting The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Trump to meet with Senate GOP next week MORE (R-Texas) is also in his mid-40s, and is still in the race.
“That had more to do with how he looked than his age,” Hess said.
The ages of Clinton and Trump have been noted throughout the campaign in relation to some of the younger candidates, notably Rubio and Cruz. But for the most part it’s been a non-issue, particularly in the context of using it as a disqualifying factor.
“You hardly ever hear it,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyDemocrats stage protest during brief House session 3 rays of sunshine on Pentagon foreign aid Dem protest ignites debate about control of House cameras MORE (D-Va.).
That is, until recently.
Trump, in shifting his sights from the GOP primary field to the looming general election, has increasingly questioned Clinton’s health and “stamina.” The celebrity businessman is 16 months older than Clinton, but he’s built his success around an image of vigor and machismo, and the message underlying his comments is unmistakable: The former first lady is not physically fit enough to run the country.
“Hillary is a person who doesn’t have the strength or the stamina, in my opinion, to be president,” Trump told ABC’s “This Week.” “She doesn’t have strength or stamina. She’s not a strong enough person to be president.”
That characterization has been rejected out of hand by Clinton supporters and other political observers, who are quick to point out her marathon testimonies before various congressional committees, most notably last fall before the House panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
“Her command of issues, and her stamina, were the very things we noted. It couldn’t be more false,” Connolly, who has endorsed Clinton, said of Trump’s attacks. “I mean you can pick on her on some other things, maybe, but stamina is laughable on its face.”
In 2012, Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion, an injury her husband, Bill Clinton, said took six months to recover from. That fall has triggered some in the GOP, including ex-Bush aide Karl Rove, to question her health going into the 2016 race.
Both Clinton and Trump have released medical records showing that they are fit to serve as commander in chief.
If Trump is trying to downplay his age, Clinton has embraced it by constantly highlighting her role as a grandmother. Some experts say that strategy plays to her strengths as a seasoned Washington veteran with broader experience than her rivals.
“Age works in her favor,” Hess said. “Age is in keeping with her narrative.”
Luke Barr, Haley Britzky and Jennevieve Fong contributed.