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A few weeks ago, The New York Times‘s Upshot blog posed an interesting question: “Is Rubio Too Young for Republicans?”  Rubio, whose campaign has sought to emphasize his youth, is 44—if he wins, he would be the third-youngest president in U.S. history.  Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic front-runner, is 68.

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Rubio’s youth-focused strategy echoes the narrative put forth by another fresh-faced Presidential candidate in recent history: Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign against John McCain.

Political scientists Kate Kenski and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explored the age issue in a paper on the 2008 election.  Using data from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s National Annenberg Election Survey, the researchers explored voter beliefs about both Obama’s and McCain’s ages, and how those beliefs shaped voting preferences and decisions.  The National Annenberg Election Survey is a “13-month-long rolling cross-sectional survey on the political attitudes and behaviors of the U.S. population” that was conducted between December 2007 and November 2008.

The researchers’ findings indicate that voters may fear old age more than youth.  McCain’s age, which was the subject of intense media attention during the campaign, posed a problem for more voters than Obama’s did. 34.9 percent of voters interviewed in the last few weeks of the campaign said McCain was “too old,” while only 11.8 percent felt Obama was “too young”—the researchers also found that those beliefs drove voting decisions.

Interestingly, in more good news for Rubio, the age issue also evolved throughout the 2008 campaign in ways that benefited Obama and harmed McCain.  Kenski and Jamieson found that each day of the campaign was associated with a “0.04 % increase in the ‘too old’ belief.”  By contrast, fewer voters worried about Obama’s age as the campaign progressed.

Of course, there’s one obvious difference between Marco Rubio today and Barack Obama in 2008: Rubio is a Republican, and the Republican party has historically favored older, more experienced candidates (consider Ronald Reagan, for example).  The survey data Kenski and Jamieson analyzed reflects that preference—”Republicans were more likely than members of any other party identification to believe that Obama was too young to be president,” they wrote. “Of Republicans, 17.4 % said that Obama was too young, in comparison to 12.5 % of independents and 6.1 % of Democrats.”  Republicans, however, didn’t “hold Obama’s age against his seeking of the presidency to the same extent that Democrats held McCain’s age against him.”


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Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3, The 2008 Presidential Election, Part II (September 2010), pp. 449-463