The Age Factor in California Elections

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

It has been pointed out by one of my fellow columnists on this website that Californians—particularly Democrats—prefer older political leaders.

He writes, “The good news for younger, more ambitious politicians here is this: if you live long enough, you might get elected to something big.”

For the moment that would seem the case with Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren topping out the current primary polls. 

If elected Biden would be 78 upon inauguration, Sanders 79. If either should get there they would certainly benefit from a big chunk of Democratic votes from California. Warren will have turned 71.

March 3rd, so-called Super Tuesday, may help to resolve some of that riddle.

However a markedly different story is told when we look at which Republicans were overwhelmingly endorsed by the state’s voters in all recent primaries and general elections going back to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Donald Trump currently holds the age record having taken office when he was 70. That makes the 45th president the oldest person ever elected. 

Before Trump four of the last six GOP presidents were the oldest to be elected and most of them were runaway favorites in the Golden State.

In order of succession at their age of induction they were Ronald Reagan, 69; George H. W. Bush, 64; Dwight Eisenhower, 62; Richard Nixon, 56; and Gerald Ford, 61. 

Of course both Senator Nixon and Governor Reagan as Californians had the edge with the voters from the outset.

One cannot forget Reagan’s famous and highly effective quip in his memorable debate with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale when the age issue came up:

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Ronald Reagan quipped during the 1984 presidential debates when asked if, at 73, he is too old to be President.

Only Democrat Harry Truman, the 33rd president, who was 61 when he took the oath in 1949 interrupted the steady stream of GOP elders who corralled California’s primary and electoral votes.

By comparison the youngest Democratic candidate to do well here in our primaries was Lyndon Johnson—a sprightly 55 upon inauguration—who went on to a landslide victory over Arizonan, Barry Goldwater.

More recently, the state’s Democratic voters heavily favored Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton who were 47 and 46 at the time of their swearing in. 

In 1960 John F. Kennedy was 43 when the initial primary tabulations showed that California’s favorite son Richard Nixon had been defeated. After the absentee ballots were counted it saw the Republican coming from behind to win the state by 36,000 votes.

When Nixon finally captured the White House in 1968 soundly beating his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, he was at 55 considered a “party elder.” 

The youngest president ever to serve was Republican “Teddy” Roosevelt—a comparative youth at 42 in March of 1901.

A younger candidate might still turn the tables in the upcoming primary in California. But it will not be a Republican.

The state is in fact skewing younger in choosing its leaders. Gov. Gavin Newsom is 52 –hardly a “geezer.” The junior U.S. Senator Kamala Harris is 55.

If age is a highly relevant factor—and it could be for millions of Democrats who have yet to make up their minds—it is not something the president’s supporters will be talking about.

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