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How old is too old to serve in public office?

The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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How old is too old to run for public office? Voters have some thoughts.

Multiple rounds of polling have found voters are looking for younger people to be elected to represent them and deal with the problems facing America’s future.

The desire for change is especially evident at the top of the ticket, where public polling has found voters do not want the favorite for either party — President Joe Biden for Democrats or former President Donald Trump for Republicans — to run for a second term. The race would feature the two oldest American presidents in the country’s history, with Biden turning 82 in 2024 and Trump turning 78.

The potential rematch is not garnering much enthusiasm from voters and could cause more people to stay home instead of casting a ballot.

“If you throw Biden and Trump at the electorate, people are saying in our polls, some people won't even vote,” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “It wasn't like 1%, it was high single-digits that they don't want those two choices, and that's a problem.”

There are multiple factors at play in the electorate’s desire for new leadership, but Trump and Biden’s ages are not helping their standing with voters, who have shown support for setting a maximum Constitutional age limits for presidents and members of Congress.

In a Meredith Poll from last spring, over 75% of respondents said an upper limit on age was a good idea for federally elected officials. The support was universal across partisanship, level of education and ages.

More recent polling from Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found their ideal presidential candidate trends much younger Biden and Trump. Over 59% of voters in the UMass poll said there should be a maximum age and set that age at about 67 years old.

Suffolk asked voters to describe their ideal candidate in a December survey. Half of the voters said the president should be between 51 and 65 years old, with 25% picking age 35-50, while just 8% said an ideal president would be 66 to 80.

Both Biden and Trump came away from packed primaries in the elections they won the Oval Office filled with candidates who were much younger than they were and fit in what voters describe as their ideal age range. Trump will likely have to face that test again in 2024, but Biden is not expected to face a serious primary challenge from any up-and-comers within the Democratic Party.

So why don’t primary results reflect clear preferences among the two major parties?

“(Voters) may say, ‘well, Joe Biden is a moderate and candidate X is too progressive for me’ or in the Republican primary for 2024, they may say, ‘well, Trump's better at X than DeSantis is at Y,” said David McLennan, a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll. “We do see those stark differences in primary elections, but we don't see a whole lot of evidence that age in and of itself is what's driving the voting decisions.”

While there is broad agreement on wanting younger leadership, it’s not always something available to them. Americans have increasingly called for more third-party candidates in recent years among growing frustration with the two major political parties.

“The difference between what people say and what they do is not an inconsistency in the respondent. It's the resulting action from a system that doesn't provide them their options,” Paleologos said.

How age factors into the 2024 presidential election is still to be determined as Trump remains the only candidate to officially declare for the race. If other, younger candidates end up stepping into the race and winning the nomination, it could become a bigger aspect of voters’ decisions.

“At the end of the day, it's really up to the voters to choose whether Biden is too old,” said Raymond La Raja, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the UMass Poll.

Even if age isn’t the primary driving factor behind voting decisions, it has still become a more prominent issue in recent years.

How to address aging politicians and voters’ perceptions about the effect serving in Congress for decades has gained more prominence in recent years.

During the last Congress, the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were all over 80 years old. Other members of the Democratic leadership team in the House were also over 80, like Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, won reelection again in 2022 at age 89 and is third in line for the presidency as president pro tempore of the Senate behind the vice president and speaker of the House.

Overall, average age in the House in the 117th Congress was over 58 years old, and over 64 years in the Senate. It was the oldest average age of any Congress in the last 20 years.

High-profile hearings where older senators question social media executives about the wrong network or make references to Taylor Swift music in a hearing about antitrust laws have also raised some eyebrows about whether lawmakers in their 60s and beyond are best suited to deal with some of the problems facing the country.

That is reflected in the UMass poll, where the youngest range of voters set the lowest limit for how old a president could be at 62.9 years old.

The election of Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., as the first member of Gen Z to serve in Congress has also sparked more urgency among younger voters to have fresh faces represent them. Gen Z is loosely defined being born between 1995 and 2010.

“It really has provoked a lot of discussion among the younger voters,” McLennan said. “They say, ‘this guy understands what we're going through.’ It kind of sends the message that someone in their 60s or 70s clearly does not.”

Similar to setting an age limit, there is also bipartisan agreement among voters in enacting term limits on members of Congress, which has received some more attention from lawmakers recently. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., has introduced a bill in the last two Congresses creating a limit of three terms in the House and two in the Senate in response to some of the public outcry for them.

Races for the Senate in the upcoming cycle will feature candidates who are longtime members or to replace experienced members of Congress, like the developing Democratic primary in California for 89-year-old Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. Seventy-two-year-old Democratic Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow announced she would not seek reelection in 2024, saying she was “inspired by a new generation of leaders.”

Some political scientists have argued that term limits, in addition to age limits, could yield negative results and end up harming lawmakers’ ability to govern. Some studies on the issue have found that enacting term limits can lead to a consolidation of power and more influence from special interests, resulting in less democratic governance.

“For members of Congress, you want people with experience, you want elected people with experience who could push back against the bureaucracy, who could push back against the presidency and have the kind of stature and knowledge to do that,” La Raja said.

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