For Voters, When Does Old Become Too Old?

Now, just because it’s easy to blame Mr. Biden’s age for his political woes doesn’t make it so. There’s no doubt that voters have concerns, but it’s very hard to figure out how much support it’s costing Mr. Biden in the polls. We can’t know, for instance, what his approval rating would be if he were 10 or 20 years younger. Maybe it would be nearly as low, because of the border, the Middle East, earlier inflation, lingering resentments and anxieties after the pandemic — alongside the corroding effects of partisan polarization.

Why can’t we know? The age issue is not like the economy, in which easily measurable data helps us make sense of its import. We know 10 percent inflation or 10 percent unemployment could be sufficient to cost a president re-election. We’ve seen it before, based on decades of hard data. In contrast, the severity of Mr. Biden’s age problem is almost entirely up for debate. That perception is mostly subjective — based on how he appears and sounds, not simply based on the fact of his being 81. (Mr. Trump is 77.)

Superficial and subjective issues like these are hard to analyze, as evidenced by the very wide range of responses to Mr. Biden’s news conference on Thursday. Even a question as simple as “why do voters think Biden is too old, but not Mr. Trump?” is hard to answer. It’s clear voters believe so, but the likely explanation is just as superficial and subjective as the feelings of individual voters. Subjective, of course, does not mean unimportant. Even the most superficial factors like appearance or voice depth can play a powerful role in vote choice. Mr. Biden seems to have crossed an invisible line demarking whether a candidate isn’t just old but “too” old in the view of many voters; Mr. Trump has not.

What’s more, the questions about Mr. Biden’s age are almost entirely without precedent in the era of modern elections. There has never been a president who has faced this level of concern about his age — not even Ronald Reagan in 1984, who was eight years younger than Mr. Biden this cycle. That’s exactly why it’s easy to imagine how concerns about his age might be politically potent. But it also means we’ve never observed the political effect of something like this before.

Almost every election features something unprecedented, with the potential to shake up the usual patterns of politics. In the last four cycles alone, we’ve witnessed the first Black presidential major-party nominee, the first female such nominee, the first without military or elected experience, the first modern election amid a pandemic, and so on. In all of these cases, pundits and analysts speculated — very reasonably — about whether these novel candidates or circumstances might yield an unexpected result.

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