An interesting societal shift seems to have pushed age (70 and above) into the undesirable position of the most negative characteristic for a political candidate.
A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 55 percent of Americans said it would make no difference to them if the candidate was in his or her 70s. But 66 percent of Americans said it would make no difference to them if a candidate was gay or lesbian and 71 percent said it would make no difference if the candidate were female. Thus, it makes more difference to the public if candidates are in their 70s than if they are gay or lesbian or female.
At the same time, 36 percent of those polled said it was less likely that they would support a candidate in their 70s, compared to 27 percent who would be less likely to support candidates who are gay or lesbian and nine percent who are less likely to support female candidates. So more Americans – of all ages – are less willing to vote for politicians in their 70s than they are for gay and lesbian and female candidates.
For generations, gays and lesbians remained closeted out of fear of public backlash and women battled overwhelmingly negative stereotypes in election campaigns. It is certainly a positive that discrimination has lessened for these groups but this appears have had the effect of pushing age to the forefront as a negative characteristic in politics. Meanwhile, improvements in health have forestalled many of the negative affects of aging, allowing people to live longer and in better health.
The Pew poll did find some good news with respect to age. Forty-eight percent of those polled by Pew in 2007 said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate in his or her 70s compared to 36 percent in 2014, which indicates a slight lessening of ageist attitudes.
In recent weeks, the presidential race took an unabashedly ageist turn, with Republican candidate Mark Rubio, 43, attacking Hillary Clinton as a member of a generation from “yesterday.” Clinton would be 69 upon taking office if she is elected.
Almost no one in the media acknowledged or addressed Rubio’s ageist attack. In fact, Fox “pundit” Mark Hannity called Rubio as a dynamic young man and the father of young children, while characterizing Hillary as a “grandma.” According to Hanity: “He’s young, energetic, bubbling with new ideas, an inspirational speaker with an inspirational background … She’s aging, out of ideas, often shrill, apparently according to oral reports angry and clearly not inspiring. Marco’s 43, Hillary’s closer to 70.”
Will voters act on the basis of negative stereotypes about age or will they assess how the candidates stand on the issues? The Pew report does not provide much reason for optimism. In his debate with his Democratic opponent, 56-year-old Walter Mondale. Ronald Reagan promised he “will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan won handily.