Democrats, 2020, And The Age Issue

With the 2020 Campaign set to begin as soon as the 2018 campaign ends, Democrats find themselves facing an age issue.

With the 2018 midterms swiftly coming to an end, attention will soon inevitably shift to the 2020 campaign for President. On the Republican side, absent some kind of political earthquake, the situation is clear. President Trump is quite obviously seeking re-election and, while there may be some kind of nominal challenge, the odds of such a challenge being successful are fairly slim unless Trump finds himself so weakened by scandal, a recession, or some other outside factor we can’t predict at this time. On the Democratic side, though, things are as up in the air as they have ever been for that party. Two years ago, it was largely inevitable that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee notwithstanding the fact that she faced a stronger than expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Eight years before that, the race for the nomination was a bit more open but it was clear very early on that it would consist of two frontrunners — Clinton and Obama — and a cast of also-rans that quickly began to disappear from the field after the Iowa Caucuses that year. The same was largely true of the 2004 nomination fight, which quickly dwindled down to the point where John Kerry was the inevitable nominee. In 2000, Al Gore ended up with at best token opposition from former Senator Bill Bradley.

The fight for the nomination of the Democratic Party in 2020 is not shaping up to be anything like those past contests. To get an idea of what we’re likely to expect, you have to go back to the nomination fights on the Democratic side in 1984, 1988, or 1992, when there was no real frontrunner prior to the start of the campaign and it took time for the race to sort itself out. A similar process seems likely for Democrats in 2020. Already we’ve seen some candidates flirting with the idea of running, including known names like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders and relative newcomers such as Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and others. There has even been speculation that Hillary Clinton and Michael Avenatti could seek her parties nomination for the third time in twelve years. Indeed, the list of potential Democratic candidates is so long that some have speculated that, at least initially, the party could see itself faced with a field as crowded as what Republicans had in 2016 when there was at one point as many as 17 people considered more or less “major” candidates.

Given the fact that some of the names on the list are people in the seventies, the issue of age is likely to inevitably become an issue that Democratic voters will have to deal with:

It’s a question some Democrats are pondering as the 2020 presidential election inches closer: Can their party represent change when three of its top candidates are not only familiar faces, but people in their retirement years?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) will enter her 70s in June. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is 77. Former Vice President Joe Biden will turn 76 later this month.

Though the primaries are still a ways off, all three have emerged in early polls as favorites to be the 2020 Democratic nominee.

Some strategists say that might be a problem.

“Democrats would be better off with a young candidate,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who argued that an electorate that seems to want change might prefer someone from a younger generation.

He put it as a generational battle, this time between baby boomers and millennials.

“The desire for change is a function of a battle between an ascending generation, the millennials who want political power, and a descending generation, the baby boomers, who have the power but don’t want to give it up,” he said.

There are certainly a number of candidates ready to step up if Democratic voters are looking for a younger nominee.

Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), a freshman in the Senate, is 54. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is 49, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is 51.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has sparkled as a challenger to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and become a liberal fundraising force, is 46.

None of those candidates would qualify as millennials, but they are from a different generation than the trio at the top of the Democratic polls.

Earlier this year, Biden — who allies suggest may consider running for one term only — acknowledged that age is a “legitimate” issue for presidential candidates.

“I think it’s totally appropriate for people to look at me and say if I were to run for office again, ‘Well, God darn you’re old.’ Well, chronologically, I am old,” Biden said during a question and answer session at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan’s Speakers Series last month, according to CNN.

“Every voter is entitled to know exactly what kind of shape you’re in. You owe it to them. It’s a legitimate question and so I think age is relevant.”

I’ve raised the age issue myself several times in connection with discussions about potential Democratic candidates in 2020. It’s a question that is relevant not only because of the obvious issues that electing a person in their late 70s to the Presidency raise regardless of what party you’re talking about, but also because it raises the issue of just how much longer the generation represented by the likes of Biden, Warren, and Sanders should be seen as the leading candidates for what is arguably the most important political job on the planet. Typically, there has come a time when one generation has handed off that responsibility to another. It happened in 1960 when the generation represented by Dwight Eisenhower was effectively handing off power to the generation that fought in the Second World War as Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy had. Later, that happened when the older generation of Democrats that had tried and failed to defeat Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush handed things off to the generation represented by Bill Clinton. Then, in 2008 it seemed like we were seeing a similar generational change when Barack Obama won the nomination over party favorite Hillary Clinton. Instead, Clinton returned eight years later and she ended up being opposed by a Republican who was older than Ronald Reagan was when he was first elected President. Now, Democrats have a chance to hand off power to a younger generation, but instead, they seem to be intent on focusing their attention on a group of septuagenarians.

Of course, some Democrats don’t think age will be all that big an issue in 2020 given the fact that whoever the Democrats run will be running against someone who will be 74 years old by the time he faces voters in the 2020 General Election:

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said she doesn’t think the age of some would-be candidates is problematic for the party.

Cardona pointed to 2016, when Sanders was “able to attract a massive following of young people,” and nearly beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Sanders was able to tap into a sentiment that Clinton represented the tired Washington establishment, and he positively electrified swaths of young voters.

During that race, the Vermont senator lured millennials to the race by talking about issues such as free public college, single-payer health care and campaign finance reform.

A survey conducted in early 2016 by pollster Frank Luntz showed that young voters selected Sanders when asked which politician they respected the most. Sanders even beat former President Obama, who at 57 is 20 years his junior, 31 percent to 18 percent, according to the poll.

“I think what’s important more than age is for the candidates to authentically speak to and make a connection with voters in every state and in every community and offer a platform of new ideas and real solutions for the problems the country is facing,” Cardona said.

Kofinis said that whoever wins will need to run a nimble, 21st century campaign that doesn’t rely on a playbook from previous years.

“It’s not going to be the age of the candidate but the age of their ideas and the age of their actual campaign,” he said.

Perhaps that will be the case, but there’s another rather obvious reason why age is a relevant question for any candidate for President. As we’ve seen time and again, being President is one of the most stressful jobs anyone can have. It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether someone is up to the task due to their advanced age, and even more relevant to ask who would replace them should they die in office or become unable to perform the duties of their office and force the nation to go through the process mandated by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, something that hasn’t happened yet in American history but which is inevitably likely to happen at some point.

Finally, there’s the fact that there comes a time when the nation requires new blood, and that usually means newer younger leadership. That’s what happened in 1960, 1992, and 2008 and it more or less was a good thing. Rather than a 2020 General Election between two people who were middle-aged when many of us were born, isn’t it time for the torch to be passed to a new generation? That’s a question Democrats will have to ask themselves in 2020.



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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree entirely, not because I think Biden or Warren can’t do the job – my wife’s idiot dog would do a better job than the current occupant. Rather I see it as an issue of representation – enough with Greatest/Boomer domination. And it’s about branding. The Democratic Party is meant to be hopeful and forward-looking, and ‘forward-looking’ is not generally descriptive of people staring their own deaths in the face.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    I’d expect the 2020 nomination to play out very much like 2004. There will be a large number of top tier candidates (as in 2004 with Dean, Edwards, Clark, Gephardt and Lieberman as well as the eventual nominee Kerry), who do not get winnowed until there is actual voting, but then get winnowed fairly quickly thereafter. Also as in 2004, the nominee will likely be someone who is broadly acceptable to all, rather than the leader of a branch of the party.

  3. JohnMcC says:

    Someone is jumping the gun here. But I’ll bite.

    First, with Pres Trump running for reelection as a 74yr old, a D-party candidate in 45-55 age would represent more of a change which would obviously be the proper position to take. And second, Axios has a poll showing that EVERY woman listed as a possibility beats Mr Trump soundly. Oprah beats him by 12%.
    Hillary leads him by 5%. Michelle Obama crushes him by 13%.

    Woocudanode? Piss off almost the entire XX side of the human race and you have problems getting their vote. Women! Who can figure them out?

  4. Kit says:

    As we’ve seen time and again, being President is one of the most stressful jobs anyone can have.

    I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you’ve managed to find one area where Trump shines: the guy doesn’t have a grey hair on his head! The man looks plump, pink and well rested. The job agrees with him.

  5. Gustopher says:

    It’s weird to be going back to the older generation twelve years after Obama was elected, and twenty since George W. Bush was elected.

    Just plain weird.

  6. Kylopod says:


    Axios has a poll showing that EVERY woman listed as a possibility beats Mr Trump soundly.

    In mid-2015 polls consistently showed Clinton crushing Trump by double digits.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Using the Pew age range for millennials (1981) most of them are too young to run for President; the oldest millennial is only 37. Moreover, most may still be to young to even run for Congress. If it’s millennials who will “lead us out of the darkness,” we’re still about 5-10 years (or more) away.

    For right now, looks like it’s Boomers or slackers Gen Xers. Oh well…

    ETA: “The job agrees with him.” No, he got lucky in the genetics olympics–red hair doesn’t turn grey; it does turn white, but only toward the end of life.

  8. wr says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: “No, he got lucky in the genetics olympics–red hair doesn’t turn grey; it does turn white, but only toward the end of life.”

    And his orange skin is a product of genetics, too, I’m sure.