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
Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president—just as she was eight years ago today. If she were to succeed this time around, what would her chances be for a general election victory? Obviously, it is far too early to reach anything approaching a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless, we can draw some basic inferences based on the career and age profiles of previous nominees for the presidency to see how Clinton stacks up.
In his groundbreaking 1966 study Ambition and Politics, Joseph A. Schlesinger observed that there was a fairly rigorous hierarchy to political careers in the United States. In particular, he found that certain positions offered avenues to promotion to higher positions, while others did not. For instance, one does not go from being a state legislator to president in a single shot. Rather, the pathway to the executive mansion usually comes via having been a governor, senator, vice president, or high-ranking military commander during a war. Thus, the two major-party nominees almost always have similar backgrounds. Clearly, politicos and voters tightly regulate who is, and who is not, considered a candidate for the top job.
It is not just a candidate’s professional background that matters. Age is undeniably a factor as well. The average president is between the ages of 54 and 55 when he first assumes the office, while the average loser is roughly the same age. There has been, moreover, very little deviation around these averages since 1828. All but five presidents have been between the ages of 45 and 65 at the time of their elevation. Unsuccessful candidates for the presidency are a bit more likely to be older, but not by much.
If Hillary Clinton were to win the presidency in 2016, she would prove an exception to these rules. Her eight years in the Senate aside, her political career does not fit the normal pathways of previous presidents. Evidently, no president made a debut on the national stage as first lady. And the State Department is hardly a path to the White House anymore. During the Jeffersonian era, serving as secretary of state was the best way to become president; but since the presidency became a popularly elected position, the department’s nonpolitical nature has been a burden for candidates looking to build electoral coalitions. The last president to have served previously as secretary of state was James Buchanan. Insofar as the office has held an occupant with political ambitions of late, it has been a “consolation prize” for failed presidential nominees. In the last 100 years, John Kerry, Edmund Muskie, Charles Evans Hughes, and William Jennings Bryan all became secretary of state after losing bids for the presidency.
Whether the State position will ultimately be a feather in Clinton’s cap remains to be seen. On the one hand, the apolitical nature of the job has certainly enhanced her standing with the public. She has, over the years, gotten reams of positive press for her world travels, which has boosted her favorable numbers with Republicans and the all-important bloc of independent voters. Moreover, she already had a top-flight political organization in place before she entered the job, and it can easily be rebuilt by the time of the Iowa caucus. So the nonpolitical nature of State has not been a drag on her political prospects. On the other hand, the position ties her inextricably to the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general and the Benghazi fiasco in particular.
Clinton will be 69 at the 2017 inauguration, which would make her older than every previous president upon elevation except Ronald Reagan (who was about two weeks away from his 70th birthday when he was first sworn in). Will this affect her odds?
Since the country began the practice of mass-based presidential elections in approximately 1828, there have been 46 elections that featured two major-party candidates. Most of the time, their age differences have been negligible, for the reasons Schlesinger hypothesized. The pathway to the presidential nomination takes skilled (and lucky) pols roughly the same amount of time. The exceptions are usually military leaders and prior aspirants, both of whom tend to be older. Military leaders (like William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Dwight Eisenhower) tend to be victorious, while prior aspirants (like Henry Clay, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney) tend to be unsuccessful. Clinton falls into the latter category, having tried and failed to reach the White House in 2008. Of course, Ronald Reagan is an exception to this rule, winning the presidency on his third attempt, in 1980. So is Richard Nixon.
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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