The 2016 US presidential election has, perhaps, taken more unexpected twists and turns than a game of Mario Kart on mirror mode. (For those who lack the proper allusory background, check Youtube. You’ll understand pretty quickly). Polls have been highly erratic, as evidenced by this polling average snapshot from RealClearPolitics:
Those dramatic ups and downs get a bit less dramatic when you include third party candidates into the mix:
For all intents and purposes, however, the 2016 presidential race is nothing short of a statistical dead heat, despite many claims that would seem to indicate otherwise. The biggest problem with predicting this year’s elections has been a direct consequence of the candidates’ and voters’ overall unpredictability. Even noted election statistician Nate Silver admitted back in May that punditry is the main reason why most predictions have been thus far wholly off the mark.
Even at less than 2 months out, the final outcome is increasingly difficult to determine one way or another. Although hardly a day goes by in which someone claims to finally have a definitive linchpin on the November 2nd results, those predictions are usually upended by conflicting predictions elsewhere. This is typically not a problem for each party’s faithful on either the left or the right. By most accounts, staunch Republicans and Democrats intend to do exactly what staunch Republicans and Democrats normally do: vote the party line. But numerous issues continue to emerge which question such a rigid dedication to individual candidates. This week’s cause celebre? Candidate health.
Clinton, Trump and the Argument Over Age
Up until recently, Republicans have been heavily pooh-poohed for attempting to draw attention to Hillary Clinton’s potential health issues. Criticism against the idea that the elder stateswoman might have underlying health issues has at times been fierce, even nasty. Yet recent revelations about her battles with pneumonia have major newspapers and news networks changing their tone on the issue. But it has also raised, yet again, the overall question over both hers and Donald Trumps’ age and health.
For his part, Trump’s campaign has been much more secretive over the Republican candidate’s health. While the recent focus on health issues have forced the Clinton campaign to play their hand and release more medical records and information than they likely ever intended or desired, the amount of information that we have seen from the Trump campaign has been a short appearance on Dr. Oz and an overly simple letter from the candidate’s doctor.
In Clinton’s case, the recent health issues may have had a deleterious effect on her overall support among key demographics. It may be only a matter of time before the Clinton campaign pushes harder in questioning why Trump’s campaign has been less-than-transparent on his own health.
Less a Matter of Age than of Mental Health
In general, the potential health issue for both candidates circles back to one important fact. Should either be elected, they would individually be among the oldest presidents-elect in the history of the United States. In July, Washington Post’s Jena McGregor ran an article titled “Clinton and Trump are the oldest candidates ever. No one seems to care.” No one cared 2 months ago. Chances are, they do care now.
Although there is a 2-year difference between the two candidates, at 68 (Clinton) and 70 (Trump), both candidates would either match or exceed the age of the oldest president at the time of inauguration, Ronald Reagan. Generally speaking, health is always going to be a concern for anyone past the federal retirement age. Indeed, it is rare for Americans to be facing a choice between two candidates who could both be drawing their full Social Security retirement benefits.
According to the CDC, the current, average life expectancy in the United States is just under 79 years. However, those that have managed to reach the age of 65 by today’s date have a slightly higher life expectancy than previous generations before them, while men and women each have slightly different expectancies in the U.S. as well. According to the Social Security Administration, “A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3” and “A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.” If one compares this to the U.S. life expectancy of 74 years when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated (1981), it raises a lot of questions, in particular, whether or not Reagan’s age was as big an issue then as candidate age seems to be now. (Answer: Yes, it was.)
Even before anyone had imagined Donald Trump, or even the 75-year-old Bernie Sanders, would be a serious contender for the presidency, age has been in the discussion. The Washington Examiner raised the issue back in 2014. And although they framed the question with an overly biased headline, Politico raised also addressed the topic of presidential age back in February. “Is Donald Trump Too Old to Be President?” asked Politico writer Michael Tortorello. Here, Tortorello focused on the one issue with an aged president-elected that is most concerning: mental health. The Washington Examiner’s Bryon York effectively answered that question 2 years when he wrote, ‘…having a pulse is not the standard for presidential performance; being up to the job is. There’s no doubt Reagan was slowing down in his final two years in office, and then suffered from Alzheimer’s during his post-presidency.”
Yes, Reagan’s age was an issue. So was Bob Dole’s. And John McCain’s. But age isn’t the defining factor in this election. Mental health is. According to the CDC, 15-20% of adults over the age of 50 suffer from mental health issues. Taking the upward threshold as the point of reference, there’s a good reason why age is, and should be, an important factor in this and every election.
Despite the minimum age for those seeking the presidency being only 35, very few presidents have ever been elected who were actually close to that age. At 42, Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president, although life expectancy for men at the time as a mere 47 years (Roosevelt died at age 60).
While it’s easy to believe that a rising life expectancy means we should be seeing an overall upward trend in older presidents, this has also not been the case. The average age for elected presidents has not significantly trended in either direction since George Washington was first elected. Even if we were seeing an upward trend in age, higher life expectancies do not immediately equate to better health at an older age for many people.
America can, and more often does, elect younger leaders whose health is less likely to be a topic of concern. And indeed, we are more likely to choose a younger, healthier candidate as president. Given that the average age for elected presidents is around 54 (a number that has remained relatively unchanged even in the last 100 years and in the last 50 years), when our primary candidates are closer to the age where health, and especially mental health, is a major concern, we’re right to question their health. We’re also duty-bound to demand mental health evaluations and family histories of such from our major, and minor party candidates. It may be considered “invasive”, but for a society that boundlessly scrutinizes every aspect of television, film, and music celebrities, we’re surprisingly protective of our favored political candidates.