The Magazine

The Elder Stateswoman

Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be a fresh face in the White House.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JAY COST
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With prior losers, it is hard to argue that age was a major factor in their final defeats. It may be instead that the qualities that kept those candidates from the White House the first time around contributed to the subsequent losses. If, for instance, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney had been particularly strong candidates, they should have won the party nod the first time they attempted to gain it, when their ages were closer to the historical average. Of course, the same goes for Clinton. She lost to Barack Obama despite massive fundraising, the strong backing (at least initially) of Democratic elites, and universal name recognition. So here is another count against Clinton’s chances—whether her age will be an impediment directly or merely an indication of other impediments she faces.

Electoral battles in which one candidate is over 60 regularly feature a significant age gap between the two major-party nominees. That is what we might see in 2016. Many of Clinton’s would-be opponents (Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and others) are more than 10 years younger than she. Historically speaking, the younger candidates have the edge in such battles, winning 6 out of the 10 match-ups. Once again, Ronald Reagan is a notable exception, having twice won the presidency over the age of 65 against substantially younger challengers.

What’s more, the 2016 matchup is likely to feature an inversion of recent trends. Ever since Thomas Dewey’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1948, Democratic nominees have on average been about a decade younger than their Republican opponents. In many cases, the difference has been upwards of 20 years; in fact, not once in 61 years has a Republican nominee been more than 5 years younger than the Democrat. Little wonder, perhaps, that Democrats have been dominating the youth vote of late. But a Rubio-Clinton matchup, a Ryan-Clinton matchup, or a Walker-Clinton matchup would flip that on its head. The age gap in those contests would be 20 years or more, with the GOP on the younger side of the ledger for a change.

If the GOP does field a younger candidate, look for the party to run the youthful, time-for-change campaign that Democrats JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all ran. In the postwar era, this has been an enormously successful angle by which to pursue the presidency. One could very easily imagine it working against Clinton, who by that point would have been a prominent player on the national political scene for almost 25 years.

In that regard, a Clinton candidacy would surely be unique. While some presidential candidates had political careers in Washington that lasted that long, she would be the first candidate since William Henry Harrison in 1841 to assume the presidency after a quarter-century of being a household name. That might turn out to be Clinton’s biggest weakness. If the country desires a course correction in three years, it will be tough for Hillary Clinton to argue that she can bring it about.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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