McCain: Health and Age

May 23, 2008 11:10am

The release today of John McCain’s health records raises again the question of whether his age can hurt him in the 2008 campaign. The best answer: You bet.

This doesn’t mean it will hurt. Voter preferences are most likely to be determined by voters’ partisan affiliation and the candidates’ positions on issues. But – as we’ve seen in the primaries – the candidates’ personal attributes do matter. And McCain’s age, like Barack Obama’s relative inexperience, is an undeniable negative.

An AP report on McCain’s medical records today notes that in our ABC/Post poll in April, 70 percent of Americans said his age made no difference to them. This is true, but more to the point is the fact that 26 percent – one in four – said it made them less enthusiastic about his candidacy, while just 3 percent said it made them more enthusiastic.

Election politics is often a game of margins; when one in four expresses concern, that is well beyond the ignorable. So is the fact that concern about McCain’s age is far greater than the number who say they're less enthusiastic about Barack Obama because of his race or Hillary Clinton because of her sex. Indeed those are both net positives – twice as many people are drawn to those attributes than put off by them.

There is partisanship in views of McCain’s age; just 13 percent of Republicans see it as a concern, compared with 40 percent of Democrats. But it’s 24 percent among independents, the quintessential swing voters in national elections. And it’s 27 percent among seniors, who may be said to have a unique perspective on what 71 is like.

Perhaps the best news for McCain is that the “less enthusiastic” number in our poll ebbed slightly, from 31 percent in January to 26 percent in April.

But it’s still there. Our more recent poll, this month, used a different approach, asking not about McCain in particular, but about a president first taking office at age 72. Thirty-nine percent said they were uncomfortable with the idea, including 15 percent "entirely" uncomfortable. That again was more than twice the level of discomfort with either an African-American or a woman president.

In a Gallup poll in March, relatively few people raised McCain's age in an open-ended question asking their compunctions about him. But that was simply because other concerns were more salient – e.g., his closeness to President Bush and his support for the Iraq war. It doesn’t mean age is a non-issue.

We’ve been here before; as a 73-year-old candidate Ronald Reagan effectively defused questions about his age, and not just by his well-timed zinger in an October 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, then 56. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

Reagan showed that a candidate can effectively address concerns about his age, not just with a snarky line but best by displaying vigor and acuity on the campaign trail. McCain – who, if elected, would be the oldest person sworn into office as a first-term president – has the opportunity, in the months ahead, to do the same.

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