How big of a factor will Biden's age be in the 2024 election?

Voters are worried about his mental acuity, but it's unlikely he'll step aside.

February 12, 2024, 4:47 PM

Welcome to 538's politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): Last Thursday was a rough day at the office for President Joe Biden. It all started with the release of special counsel Robert Hur's report into Biden's handling of classified documents after he left the vice presidency. While the report concluded that no criminal charges were warranted, it did find that Biden had "willfully retained" classified documents and knowingly left them in his garage and unlocked drawers.

But perhaps the most politically damaging aspect of the report was the spotlight it shone on Biden's advanced age, which has been a persistent concern for Americans for years. The report stated that Biden presented himself in an interview "as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory," and that he had forgotten key dates like when he stopped being vice president and when his son, Beau, had died.

Then, on Thursday night, Biden made a surprise appearance at a press conference at which he forcefully rebutted the report. He claimed that his memory was fine and that he was still fit to be president and also became visibly angry at the report's assertion that he had forgotten the date of Beau's death. He also answered a question on the Israel-Hamas war, saying that Israel's response to the Oct. 7 terror attack was "over the top," but also inaccurately stating that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the president of Mexico.

Taken as a whole, these events kick-started a new round of discourse among political pundits about whether Biden was fit to serve a second term as president and whether he should even be running for reelection. We'll definitely be getting to that, but let's start with the actual substance of the special counsel's report: Biden's handling of classified documents. Do you guys think Biden's mishandling of the documents will hurt him politically — or even be a factor in the 2024 campaign?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, professor of political science at Marquette University and 538 contributor): I have my doubts, but I said this about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails in 2015 as well. One consideration is that former President Donald Trump's own classified-documents case seems to have resonated with the public more than Trump's other three indictments — so that's some evidence to suggest that people do care about this stuff. On the other hand, notice I said "Trump's other three indictments," which suggests that this election cycle might be pretty saturated with major scandals.

galen (Galen Druke, podcast host, senior producer and reporter): No, Nathaniel, I don't think the classified documents will matter for Biden. Maybe if Trump and Republicans decided to harp on it for the next nine months it would, but frankly Biden has so many other vulnerabilities that Americans are more concerned about that it seems like that would be a waste of time.

nrakich: Yeah, it's not something Trump is likely to harp on considering that he, as Julia mentioned, is also in hot water for keeping and improperly storing classified documents. And unlike Biden, he is actually facing charges for that, after allegedly repeatedly obstructing efforts to get the documents back.

galen: If anything, Trump will use it to point to what he claims is an unfair justice system that has targeted him. In reality there are very clear differences in how Trump and Biden have behaved with regard to classified documents. Either way, this is not what Americans are going to be talking about when they decide who to vote for in the fall.

julia_azari: If the "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up" thing from Watergate turns out to be true in the minds of the American people in 2024, that would be worse for Trump. I'm not sure I really buy that, but it's something to consider.

nrakich: Before Thursday, at least, Americans did view Trump's transgressions as worse. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll from January 2023, 43 percent of Americans thought Trump's classified-documents case was more serious than Biden's; just 20 percent thought Biden's was more serious than Trump's. However, 30 percent thought they were about the same.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Yeah, to me, the biggest potential impact of the documents themselves is that Trump can try to draw something of a false equivalency on the issue, thereby making him and Biden seem equally bad on this front. The reality was that Biden was far more cooperative with investigators than Trump was.

But perhaps the more consequential aspect will be the report's description of Biden as an "elderly man with a poor memory," which very much plays into many Americans' concerns about Biden's age and capacity to do the job.

galen: To put a finer point on this, one of my favorite polls of the past year, from YouGov, asked Americans who said that Trump and/or Biden were unfit to serve a second term why they felt that way. The main responses were that Trump was "dangerous" and "corrupt" and that Biden was "incompetent" and "too old." Other polling since then has backed up these findings.

Scandals are most impactful when they fit preconceived notions of a politician, which is to say that, when people joked that Biden would probably rather have been indicted on Thursday than have his age-related performance called into question, there was a cynical truth underlying it.

julia_azari: I am ready to come in hot about this report. I am old enough to remember the Starr report, and Hur's report still shocked me. Talk about bringing in something that is not directly related to the charges at hand!

To me, it seems like special counsels investigating Trump — i.e., Robert Mueller and Jack Smith — have been really careful to keep to demonstrable facts. But then Hur comes out with this rather off-topic attack on Biden. As a scholar of the presidency, I'm quite taken aback.

I've also been writing a book about impeachment, and a recurring theme is this dynamic between the charges themselves, which seem clear and legalistic, and the real reason people think the president is unfit to serve, which can be both harder to pin down legally and more reliant on vibes in general. This report felt like it was conflating the two.

nrakich: Yeah, in a letter that was published as part of the report, Biden's lawyers objected to the "highly prejudicial language" used in the report. "We do not believe that the report's treatment of President Biden's memory is accurate or appropriate."

galen: I am not a criminal prosecutor (obviously), so perhaps this is an ignorant question, but wasn't Biden's age-related mental acuity part of the reason they decided not to charge him?

julia_azari: I'm even less of one, but my understanding was that they thought it would make a jury sympathetic to him — not that he was, like, too frail to stand trial (which does happen sometimes, at least on "Law & Order," where my law degree is from).

nrakich: I think it's both; they were worried that they wouldn't be able to secure a conviction (which is, after all, the whole point of filing charges). So while I can understand why Biden felt that, say, the claim that he couldn't remember when Beau died, "even within several years," was gratuitous, I think the overall claims about him being forgetful were germane.

galen: Legal considerations aside, particularly because he was not charged, this is now a political question. And it seems like this has been a political conversation waiting to happen. So let's talk about it!!

I'm happy to stake out my position and then expand. I take the position that it's a big deal.

julia_azari: You think it's been waiting to happen? It's been happening for years!

I guess I find the age discussion frustrating because (a) it's not going to change in any unpredictable way, (b) Trump is also old and (c) this is more debatable, but there's not a lot of evidence that Biden governs like someone who can't tell the difference between Egypt and Mexico. His policies are certainly extremely debatable, but they're not haphazard.

geoffrey.skelley: Age was already a huge issue for Biden, and Thursday's events only exacerbated that for him. Even the Egypt-Mexico gaffe could have been innocent enough — many people could make the same mistake in a high-pressure situation (or even in a less stressful circumstance). However, the optics of it in the wake of the report were certainly not good for Biden. It's just one more thing playing into the belief that he's too old for the job.

nrakich: A belief that was already prevalent among Americans. According to an NBC News poll conducted the week before all this went down, 62 percent of Americans said they had "major concerns" that, at 81 years old, Biden doesn't have the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term.

geoffrey.skelley: It doesn't help Biden, either, that the Egypt-Mexico error comes on the heels of him mistakenly referencing two now-deceased French and German leaders when he meant to reference more recent or current ones.

galen: As we saw from the YouGov poll I mentioned above, competence and age are the two biggest issues that Biden-skeptical Americans have with him. In the same NBC News poll Nathaniel mentioned, Americans said Trump would be more competent and effective than Biden by a 16-percentage-point margin.

Campaigns are about changing or establishing voters' perceptions of yourself and your opponent. It's going to be hard for Biden to change perceptions that he is old. What he can do is spend more time in front of Americans forcefully and nimbly defending his record and describing his vision. On the other hand, you saw what happened when he tried to do that on Thursday.

nrakich: Yeah, I think there must have been a fascinating debate among his staff about whether that press conference was a good idea. On one hand, it's never a good idea to talk to the press in an emotional/angry state, and he made that Egypt-Mexico gaffe that only fed into the preconceptions. But on the other, if he hadn't gone out there, it would have done nothing to allay people's concerns — and might have even fed into them. (See also: his refusal to do a pre-Super Bowl interview.)

geoffrey.skelley: I do not get the choice to skip the Super Bowl interview. It would have been seen by millions of people and would have featured mostly softball questions. Biden could've just backslapped Jim Nantz and Tony Romo while talking about his love for football and other "malarkey."

There seems to be a broader strategy by the White House to minimize Biden's live press exposure, but in doing so, it's possible his handlers have only made it easier to buy into the idea that Biden doesn't have the necessary energy or mental acuity to do the job.

julia_azari: I think one thing that is a bit unpredictable is what happens if/when this election becomes forward-looking — not about Biden's track record in office, or Trump's, but about what a second term for either might look like. When it comes to personal factors, Biden is at a clear disadvantage. We've seen this before, as with former Sen. John McCain in 2008, for whom age was probably at least a bit of a liability. But once the election is being fought on prospective terrain, it opens up more questions about what Biden's and Trump's respective agendas look like.

For the most part, I think the Trump campaign has wanted to capitalize on general dissatisfaction among the electorate with the status quo. That may not be as potent a weapon, though, if the election becomes a choice between two futures.

galen: I want to address Julia's point about Trump also being old. I understand why voters might be frustrated that the media harps on Biden's age more than Trump's. So here's how I think about this.

  1. Trump is younger than Biden by four years, and when Biden ran for president four years ago, his age was in fact perceived differently.
  2. Every eligible voter in America has experience with the process of aging and knows that it affects people differently. (There's also scientific research to back that up.)
  3. People can see the differences between Biden and Trump with their own eyes. Trump flubs plenty too, but he spends far more time in front of the public forcefully defending himself and pitching his presidency.
  4. There are indeed structural disadvantages for Biden in this arena, in that it's an established trend in polling that Republicans cheer louder and boo harder than Democrats. More Democrats are willing to say in polls that Biden is too old. That may be because of what they've witnessed. It may be because they engage in less partisan cheerleading.

nrakich: It's also simply true that voters are more concerned about Biden's age than they are Trump's. According to an AP-NORC poll from August 2023, 77 percent of Americans thought Biden was too old to effectively serve another term as president, while only 51 percent thought Trump was. And I don't think you can chalk that all up to the media. To Galen's point, voters have eyes and their own personal experiences with aging.

And, again, that poll was conducted well before the special counsel's report.

Let's move on, though, to perhaps an even more controversial topic. Thursday's events led to renewed speculation that Biden would drop out of the presidential race. On the political betting site PredictIt, the chances that Biden would be the Democratic nominee fell from 83 percent last Wednesday to 72 percent on Friday. We usually dismiss this kind of talk as "West Wing"-esque fan fiction, but since it's in the air, let's talk about it: Is there any chance of that happening?

galen: I say this with the humility of someone who has been with 538 since 2015 and remembers the 2016 primary well: This election is historically weird. Keep an open mind!

julia_azari: Well, I think that if the Democratic Party jettisons Biden and doesn't have a game plan, that's probably a mistake. OTOH, the game plan is probably Vice President Kamala Harris. But I think there's a logic to this. Democrats are stuck between the 2008 world, in which a diverse array of candidates can win the general election handily, and the backlash and gun-shy world of today, in which they worry about veering too far left, about electability and about identity politics. Biden, as a well-known, white, male former vice president, helped evade that problem in 2020. And at first, I thought at the time, it was very stupid to kick this can down the road. But it occurred to me that, with generational replacement and the party drifting leftward, it might have been very rational to kick the can down the road.

What I'm saying is that if Democrats think they have a viable route to an alternative, they might think about jettisoning Biden (though the Democratic establishment loves its beloved figures). When we talk about California Gov. Gavin Newsom, we should be asking less about whether he has great hair (sure) or mopped the floor with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (not really), but rather how he plays with core Democratic constituencies: organized labor, Black voters and leaders, LGBTQ voters and leaders?

Side note: I'm all in for a Newsom nomination if it means his (distant) cousin Joanna wheels out her harp to play at the Democratic National Convention.

galen: My assumption about what will happen is that interested parties (i.e., party leaders, strategists, media types) are going to wait a couple of months to see if the solidification of the Biden-Trump rematch, paired with very optimistic economic data, will lead to an improvement in Biden's polling numbers. Currently, on average, Biden loses a head-to-head matchup against Trump by 1-2 points in very early polling.

And that's just the popular vote. Things get worse in the battleground states. If that does not turn around by April or May, I think there will be all-out pandemonium and a real debate over whether Biden should step aside.

nrakich: Spicy take, Galen!

julia_azari: I think you are overestimating the capacity for pandemonium in a very coalition-driven party run mostly by older people.

geoffrey.skelley: So you're telling me there's a chance!

But seriously, there is of course at least some possibility of this happening. Biden could announce that he's retiring after all. He's committed his life to Democratic Party politics, and if the sense became that he's seriously in danger of losing, perhaps he'd step aside.

But I have two thoughts here: First, Harris is almost certainly the top replacement option as Biden's vice president and ticketmate. The real "West Wing" fan fic is to think that someone else is more likely to succeed Biden as the Democratic nominee if this unlikely scenario developed — ahem, PredictIt.

Second, do we know if Harris or anyone else would actually be a stronger bet for Democrats? In theory, yes. But every candidate has downsides. It's just that, right now, Biden's loom incredibly large. But Harris's strength as a candidate is in doubt among some Democrats too, and someone like Newsom might be viewed as too liberal.

julia_azari: The Democrats will be a different party when they're no longer run by people who live in fear of another Walter Mondale or George McGovern — candidates who were perceived as too liberal. This is going to happen at some point. Isn't "amnesty, acid and abortion" the unofficial slogan of Gen Z? (OK, now I'm matching Galen's level of spicy.)

galen: I think Democrats proved in March 2020 — when two establishment-aligned presidential candidates suddenly dropped out and endorsed Biden to block Sen. Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination — that they can act decisively to mitigate risk when it comes to a Trump second term. They care deeply about electability.

julia_azari: They do. But sometimes parties have more incentive than capacity to pursue the ends they want.

nrakich: Yeah, coalescing around the more moderate candidate in an open primary against a progressive is one thing. Deposing a sitting president is quite another.

julia_azari: Right. The baggage of governing is often a problem.

galen: Haha, I will gladly admit I am engaging in some degree of "West Wing" fan fic. That's what we're meant to be doing here, right? But I don't think the party is just going to twiddle its thumbs while speeding toward the prospect of a Trump victory.

I think the Democratic Party is capable of acting collectively when it needs to. Look at the 2020 primary. Look at how cohesive Democrats were when they had a slim majority in the House in 2021-22. Look at Democrats' slim majority in the Senate right now and how they've stuck together.

julia_azari: I think I'm just really skeptical of the nimbleness of the Democratic Party as a coalition. That's how it ended up with Biden in the first place.

I will give you Congress, though.

geoffrey.skelley: Discarding an incumbent president is a much greater challenge than congressional unity, in my opinion, especially one who, concerns aside, remains relatively popular with Democrats — who are the ones backing him for renomination. You're talking about someone whose job performance around 3 in 4 Democrats still approve of.

And the thing is, at least for now, you have many high-profile Democrats standing by Biden, which seems indicative of a party that's more likely than not to remain wedded to its incumbent president.

julia_azari: Yes. I guess that's my point — they don't have coalition nimbleness in this context. There's much more public scrutiny on this than on former Speaker Nancy Pelosi's control of the House. Again, I maintain that this is how the party got in this situation in the first place — by selecting Biden in 2020.

galen: I think that if things get bad enough, Democrats could very well say, "We might as well try Harris." In fact, New York Times polling from last fall suggests that Democrats would be on more solid footing if they could win back the people who have a favorable view of Harris and an unfavorable view of Biden. And the Democratic establishment loves itself a New York Times poll.

nrakich: At the same time, on average, Harris does worse against Trump than Biden does in the polls that have asked about both matchups.

As Julia said about 1,000 lines ago, I think it would be easier for Democrats to dump Biden if there were a clear viable alternative — say, a vice president who was uniformly beloved and seen as a future president in waiting. Unfortunately for Harris, that's not her. So I think Biden is staying put.

galen: Again, I do think this comes back to what happens over the next few months. Does Biden's approval rating remain at 39 percent? Does he remain down to Trump in the popular vote?

geoffrey.skelley: I do think Galen's right that this could become much more fraught if there's little change in the general election polls by, say, May. Historically, polls have at least some predictive power by then. In the next couple of months, voters will understand that Biden-Trump II is very likely happening (notwithstanding this conversation), which isn't necessarily the case right now.

nrakich: The issue for Democrats is that May will be too late. Heck, even if Biden drops out today, it's too late to have a proper contested primary.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Nathaniel. The reality is, the candidate filing deadline has now passed in about four-fifths of primaries and caucuses on the Democratic side — contests that are worth about 88 percent of the party's national pledged delegates. That is to say, at this point no one besides Biden can win the Democratic nomination at the ballot box.

julia_azari: Right. It would have to be hammered out at the convention, which is a recipe for disaster.

nrakich: And at a contested convention, voters wouldn't get a direct say in the nominee. That makes things very fraught, especially if a contested convention passes over a Black female vice president to nominate a white male governor. The base would revolt.

As a result, I think the only even remotely viable exit ramp for Biden is if he endorses Harris on his way out. Otherwise, chaos.

galen: Yeah, I don't know about the identity politics of it all. Polls suggest that voters care much less about it than activists or the media do. But of course, activists and the media have sway.

geoffrey.skelley: In a scenario where Biden drops out, party leaders will be looking for a port in a storm. That is Harris, even if they have their own concerns about her. But age won't be one of the worries with her like it is with Biden.

galen: Yeah, as much as Democrats don't want a McGovern redux, as Julia has said, they also don't want a Hubert Humphrey redux, haha.

(For readers for whom this is too much in the nerdy weeds of presidential election history, I apologize!)

nrakich: Haha, I was just going to say … For those who aren't familiar, Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination at the DNC despite not competing in any primaries and being opposed by much of the Democratic grassroots. He lost to Richard Nixon in the fall.

julia_azari: So, as a party politics scholar who has been repeatedly told by my students this semester that parties are the worst, I think there's a lesson here about why they are useful. When politics is too individually focused, it is vulnerable to the frailties of a single human, who can get old or die or have a scandal. This is why you want a robust party that can represent multiple viewpoints credibly and make decisions on behalf of the group. (And recruit viable presidential candidates.)

galen: Julia, you have set me up for something I've been mulling over and wanting to say for a while.

When people defend Biden on the issue of age, they say, "Look at all he's done even with such limited power in Congress." And that is true. Biden has signed plenty of big and bipartisan legislation in ways that Trump and former President Barack Obama really didn't. And in some ways, that is a good argument for a politician working within a parliamentary system. Regardless of what you think of the individual, this person is furthering party goals. The policy comes first.

But we do not live in a parliamentary system; we live in a presidential system where the president acts as a symbol of the country and a vessel for the hopes and dreams of Americans. Biden really does not fit that mold, and he is not campaigning in a way that would spark that kind of emotional response.

Meanwhile, Trump is certainly campaigning — for better or worse — in the kind of way a presidential system demands. He'll run against his own party or platform if he wants to. It's about him. As a result, while there are plenty of policies his party wanted that he didn't achieve and he is currently charged with 91 crimes, Americans today nonetheless see him as more competent and effective than the incumbent.