vision 2020

The Geriatric Scenario for 2020

In ascending order of age, here’s Biden, Bloomberg and Sanders. Photo: Getty Images

As the oldest regular political writer here at New York, I figured it was okay for me to be the first to object on grounds of age to the prospective 2020 candidacies of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, which I did way back in 2017 before either man was formally in the field:

Biden 2020 or Sanders 2020 is a really bad idea, for reasons that go beyond the anomaly that either would make the oldest man ever elected president the youth candidate in his reelection bid. There are certainly octogenarians who are physically fit, sharp as a tack, and as competent at work as any whippersnapper. But it’s no secret that when people, particularly men, get to that age, the risk of mortality rises significantly (a 75-year-old man has a 22 percent chance of dying within six years), and along with it the possibility of cognitive deterioration (an estimated 15 percent of people between the ages of 80 and 84 suffer from some form of dementia). If voters fear any of that happening, it could (particularly with some encouragement from the kind of intensely hostile conservative media that Sanders and Biden were spared in 2016) affect their electability in ways that are not easy to anticipate in scope and power. And even more obviously, if a 77- or 79-year-old candidate suffers from any real or perceived impairment, the issue could take over the campaign to an extent that makes Hillary Clinton’s email problem look minor.

Neither candidate, of course, took my advice, and in fact Sanders is at present successfully defying my analysis by thriving not that long after suffering a heart attack. But the whole question of age may be brought back to the fore again in the near future. The current trajectory of the Democratic contest suggests that these same two candidates may well come out of the Iowa/New Hampshire/Nevada/South Carolina early-state abattoir as the co-front-runners, with a lot of their rivals having withdrawn. Many are those who believe Pete Buttigieg will crash and burn the moment minority voters begin to weigh in after New Hampshire. If Amy Klobuchar doesn’t pull an Iowa upset, she’s gone, too. Tom Steyer similarly has to do well in Iowa to be taken seriously. And Andrew Yang could stick around after the early states, but he is unlikely to be regarded as anything other than an interesting marginal overachiever.

But if it is Bernie and Biden after Nevada, both these old men will run into the bankroll of another, Michael Bloomberg, who is running an unimaginable number of ads in California and other March 3 states.

Bloomberg is about five months younger than Sanders, and nine months older than Biden.

All that could indeed make Donald Trump, at the age of 74, the “youth candidate” in 2020.

It may not matter at all, given the prevailing partisan polarization of voters, compounded by the heavy support Democrats–especially the oldest of them all, Bernie Sanders–have among younger Americans.

But if I were advising any of the other Democratic candidates, including the relatively young septuagenarian Elizabeth Warren, I’d make the possibility of old white men dominating the presidential contest from March until the bitter end an issue early and often. It’s not like Democrats can’t ultimately come around to their old men being better prepared for the presidency than the Old Man who has horrified and terrified us since his improbable election.

The Geriatric Scenario for 2020