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 TrumpLaw professors file misconduct complaint against Conway: report State Dept. memo — on dangers of leaks — leaks to media Trump: FBI ‘totally unable’ to stop leaks MORE, will be 70 years old on Election Day, while former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonMichael Moore touts Ellison for DNC: ‘We need fresh blood’ Conquering Trump returns to conservative summit How the candidates for DNC chair stack up ahead of Saturday's vote 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 ClintonGinsburg: Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is 'very easy to get along with' Washington Post hires John Podesta as columnist Moulitsas: Trump’s warped sense of reality MORE, who was 46 when he was elected in 1992; George W. Bush, who was 54 in 2000; and Barack ObamaBarack ObamaAxelrod: Congress would have 'raised hell' if Obama team asked FBI to kill story on probe Ex-Education head: Trump transgender rollback ‘thoughtless, cruel’ Poll: ObamaCare support hits new high MORE, who was 47 in 2008. That year, Obama’s youth was seen as an advantage over his rival, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainDem rep Charlie Crist files for divorce Why the GOP cannot sweep its Milo scandal under the rug New York Knicks owner gave 0K to pro-Trump group 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 McDermottDem lawmaker: Israel's accusations start of 'war on the American government' Dem to Trump on House floor: ‘Stop tweeting’ A record number of Indian Americans have been elected to Congress 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 SandersMichael Moore touts Ellison for DNC: ‘We need fresh blood’ Tommy Chong: Trump pot crackdown 'will be defeated in court' DNC chair campaigns scramble ahead of tight vote 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 RubioConquering Trump returns to conservative summit Rubio brushes off demonstrator asking about town halls A guide to the committees: Senate 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 CruzConquering Trump returns to conservative summit The Hill's 12:30 Report Cruz predicts another Supreme Court vacancy this year 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 ConnollyReps prepare to reintroduce IT modernization bill Washington-area lawmakers request GAO report on DC Metro A guide to the committees: House 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.