Fun With Excel: How Has Age Played In Presidential Elections Since 1789?


There’s already been some good examination of how much the age gap between John McCain and Barack Obama will matter in November. ThingsYoungerThanMcCain.com, for example, is doing the yeoman’s work of listing the many, many items—like lubricated condoms and the LP record—that are younger than McCain.

And the folks at the Pew Research Center conducted a poll in February that found 26 percent of registered voters think John McCain is too old to be president (the number jumps to 32 percent when voters are told that McCain is 71).

We know that Barack Obama will be 47 on election day and McCain will be 72, meaning that 2008 will see a larger age gap between the top two presidential candidates than any of the previous 55 presidential elections. So here’s my question: how has age played in presidential elections in the past? Let’s look at a chart (takeaways at the bottom):

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Takeaways: Bob Dole was really old when he ran in ’96. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan was really young—just 36—and he lost. (Does this explain why McCain compared Obama to Bryan last week?) Sixty-five-year-old James Buchanan administered a spanking of young 43-year-old whippersnapper John Fremont in 1856.

Biggest takeaway: Statistically, candidates who are slightly older—by an average of 2.2 years—have been winners.

Readers: do you see any meaningful trends that I’ve failed to notice here?
(h/t to Cape Breton University’s Stewart McCann for the data)

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  • Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability.