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The Presidential Age Game: What's in a Number?

NerdScreen Still Presidential Ages Kennedy and Eisenhower
NBC News

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The 2016 presidential race is just getting underway, but looking at the potential candidates it already stands out for one big reason – the age of some of the primary aspirants. Some of the main contenders for the White House – including former Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – would be markedly older than President Barack Obama when they took office.

That actually goes against a long-standing trend in presidential politics. Over the last 100 years, going back to President Woodrow Wilson, the presidential candidate who wins the office is, on average, about 7.6 years younger than the man they replaced.

NerdScreen Still Presidential Ages
Thomas, Shawna (206081602) / NBC News

In fact, going by the year of birth, only once in the last century have Americans elected a president older than the sitting occupant of the White House – in 1980, the people voted for Ronald Reagan who was 13 years older than President Jimmy Carter. There are much smaller differences than that, of course, and much larger ones as well – John F. Kennedy was 27 years younger than Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as you can see in this chart, the larger trend holds.

NerdScreen Graph 1
NBC News/American Communities Project

In some ways this may not be a surprise. Elections are about the future, not the past. In most cases “new ideas” are seen as an attribute and youth and vigor are seen as essential for the most demanding job in the world.

And yet, where 2016 is concerned, if Ms. Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner, were to win the White House, the age gap between her and Mr. Obama (+14 years) would be larger than the gap between Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (+13 years).

For Mr. Bush, a presumed front-runner for the GOP, the gap is smaller, but still significant at +8 years.

When 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney announced he was not running for president in January, he said one of his reasons was he wanted to make way for the “next generation” of Republican leaders. And among the 2016 potentials, there is more young blood on the Republican side, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

But among both parties, many of the possible future presidents would probably not be classified as the “next generation”, as you can see in this chart of some of the better-known names:

NerdScreen Graph 2 - 2016 Potentials 020815
NBC News/American Communities Project

On the Republican side, Mr. Bush as well as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are all older than Mr. Obama. Among the Democrats, Ms. Clinton and former Virginia Senate Jim Webb are both considerably older than Mr. Obama.

Is there a bigger meaning to all this year counting? Yes, if you believe in generational differences.

While Mr. Obama (born in 1961), Mr. Bush (born in 1953) and Ms. Clinton (born in 1947) are technically all of the same generation – they are all Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 – that broad distinction misses a bigger point.

NerdScreen Still Presidential Ages Obama and Bush
Thomas, Shawna (206081602) / NBC News

Of the three, Mr. Obama is arguably the only “post-Vietnam” politician – born late enough where he completely missed the draft era. Mr. Bush came of age while the draft was still a reality (it ended in 1973) and, of course, Ms. Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, dealt with the question of the draft when he ran for president in 1992.

In other words, the 2016 election may be about more than the economy or terrorism. In a very real way American voters may ultimately decide whether they want to move again to a younger leader or give the Vietnam Era Baby Boom generation one last chance in the White House.

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