Revenge of the Old Fogies

by Stuart Rothenberg February 4, 2016 · 2:08 PM EST

While the decision makers at news organizations from the Public Broadcasting System to CNN and the three major networks scramble to appeal to younger viewers, often by skewing younger with their hosts and commentators, Republican and Democratic voters in Iowa and nationally have embraced a remarkably “mature” handful of top tier candidates.

And by “mature,” I really mean old.

Businessman Donald Trump will turn 70 next year, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will be 75 by the time November rolls around. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is only slightly younger than the two men. She will turn 69 a couple of weeks before the 2016 elections.

Two younger Republican candidates are very much in the race, of course — 45-year-old Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and 44-year old Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who looks even younger than his 53 years, failed to get much traction as an alternative to his older opponents.

And Rubio’s youthfulness clearly is a problem for him with some voters, who mumble that he looks like he should be running for student body president, not president of the United States.

The public’s interest in older candidates surely reflects the particular skills and assets of each, but it also undoubtedly follows from many voters’ disappointment with Barack Obama’s performance in office.

Obama was 47 years old when he was elected to the nation’s top job by promising change. Republicans have for years complained about his relative political inexperience and youth, arguing that he was not prepared for the presidency and has shown a remarkable inability to work with others, including Democrats on Capitol Hill.

It isn’t unusual, of course, for voters to look for something different from what they currently have when looking for a successor to a term-limited or damaged president.

Youthful Democrat John Kennedy was selected to replace grandfatherly Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. Outsider Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 after the embarrassing Nixon years, and hawk Ronald Reagan was the choice over Carter, who always looked weak and inept. In 1992, baby boomers Bill Clinton and Al Gore offered generational change, and the Obama-John McCain contrast in 2008, at a time when many voters yearned for change, was crucial for the Democrat.

Still, it is worth noting that older candidates are showing significant appeal at a time when both candidates and voters are talking about change and the future, two themes often associated with the young. On the Democratic side, younger voters are supporting Sanders rather than O’Malley, who made generational change an important part of his message and presumably should have “connected” more easily than Sanders or Clinton with younger voters.

According to a January 18-24 Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic voters, Sanders held a 78 percent to 21 percent lead among voters age 18 to 44 over Clinton. O’Malley drew only 2 percent.

On the GOP side, Trump and Cruz tied with voters age 18 to 44, each drawing 29 percent.

Why are these older candidates showing strength now? The survey data don’t give us a clear, definitive answer, but they suggest at least some preliminary, very tentative conclusions.

Sanders’ emphasis on fairness and equality resonates with idealists on the left, particularly the young, who feel left out and powerless, as well as those progressives looking to blame someone or something (banks, corporations and the wealthy) for their condition. And the Vermont Democrat is seen as honest and caring. Apparently to younger voters, those attributes are more important than his age.

Clinton’s appeal is more traditional. She is a liberal and a woman, but one who understands the system and can make it work. She has experience, which seems a more valuable attribute to older voters than to the young, who are looking for a messiah to follow.

O’Malley, on the other hand, has never looked like the genuine article. He comes off as the creation of a consulting team – or possibly his own political calculation of how he should appear to contrast himself with Clinton. His words are progressive, certainly, but he seems to be trying way too hard. His age contrast with Clinton and Sanders apparently is not enough to attract much support.

On the GOP side, Trump’s appeal is that of a strongman. He is the guy who can deal with every challenge, solve every problem and answer every question. Just have faith in him. Some voters like that, and in Trump they have a leader – even if the wealthy businessman rarely talks specifics.

While Cruz’s appeal is ideological and Rubio’s is more about the combination of ideology, pragmatism and electability, Trump’s is purely personal. Just ask him. We will see if, over the long run, that personal appeal is enough to get him the GOP nomination.

Trump, Clinton and Sanders are all energetic candidates, each with his or her own kind of charisma. They are accustomed to dealing with the national media, and they have the kinds of skills that most politicians have. They are not your typical senior citizens.

Still, in a culture where youth is so celebrated and tomorrow seems much more important than yesterday, it is noteworthy that these three seniors are in the top tier of the 2016 race, battling for their parties’ nominations. Maybe 70 is the new 50 after all.