Is Bernie Sanders too old to be President?

That’s the wrong question. The right question is, “How does Sanders’ life expectancy compare to previous Presidents?”

Mark Gardiner
Sep 15, 2015 · 5 min read
Expressed as a percentage of U.S. males’ life expectancy, Sanders is no older than FDR, Truman, or Eisenhower were when they acceded to the Presidency.

The Democratic Party machine seems determined to pretend that Hillary Clinton’s running unopposed in the Democratic primaries, but if poll results and crowds mean anything, Bernie Sanders’ populism — and popularity — can’t be ignored. That begs the question, Is he too old to be President?

Ronald Reagan — doddering through his second term — is the obvious cautionary tale here. At 75 Bernie’d be the oldest man ever sworn in as President; even older than Reagan was the second time ‘round.

The ages at which Presidents are first elected c/o Wikipedia. At 75, Bernie Sanders would be the oldest person ever sworn in for a first term as U.S. President. But not if you compare his age to his life expectancy.

So… Is he too old?

That’s the wrong question. The right question is, What’s Bernie’s life expectancy?

The average life expectancy of U.S. males is now nearly 80. So if Bernie even achieved that average, he would (just) live out his term as President. But as any actuary will tell you, the average American man who has reached the age of 75 can expect to live about 11 more years.

Even those figures are based on national averages, but the U.S. average is comprised of data from counties with radically different life expectancies. Men in Marin Co, CA live to be almost 82. Across the country in McDowell Co, WV the average guy doesn’t hit 64.

John Adams lived to almost twice the average life expectancy for U.S. males in the post-Revolutionary War period. Almost all the 18th and early 19th c. Presidents lived to ripe old ages. That anomaly is the result, presumably, of a Presidential nomination process that selected for vitality and the simple statistical reality that even in those days, a man who survived to 45 had good odds of seeing at least 65.

While Marin’s a much nicer place to get old than McDowell, that 18-year difference in life expectancy is not down to the place, per se, as much as average income, level of education attained, and access to health care. Longevity has a positive correlation with all those factors. That helps to explain why being a President of the United States almost guarantees that you’ll live far longer than the average American male in your cohort. John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams all lived to be over 80 at a time when the average life expectancy was less than 50.

Although I don’t belittle the stress associated with running for — to say nothing of holding — office, the virtually limitless health care resources available to a present-day President suggests that Bernie can expect to outlive that actuarial estimate. If he was to get the Democratic nomination and win, at inauguration, the smart money would bet that Bernie even had enough time for a second term.

How does Bernie’s life expectancy compare to earlier Presidents?

It’s hard to meaningfully compare Presidents’ ages in the 18th & 19th centuries, when life expectancy was skewed downwards by high rates of infant mortality, dangerous and debilitating physical labor, and when now-treatable age-related diseases were a death sentence.

However, I compared age-at-inauguration with life expectancy for all the 20th c Presidents. On average, a new President took office at an age that represented about 90% of the figure for average life expectancy.

Teddy Roosevelt took office at the youngest age — 42 years and change. But relative to life expectancy, Clinton was the youngest president — he took office at 46, at a time when the average American man lived to be 72.

Taft, Wilson, Harding; FDR (later terms); Truman, Eisenhower and of course Reagan were all Presidents who were, from an actuarial perspective, at least as old as Bernie is now.

When he was sworn in for his second term in 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about the same age as Bernie Sanders is now, compared to the average life expectancy at that time. When terms limits were dropped because of WWII, he was elected twice more.

Admittedly, Harding died of natural causes in office. FDR, too, died of natural causes but it was in his fourth term (his time in office extended by WWII.) Although he was visibly frail in his final term as Commander-in-Chief, FDR is consistently ranked one of the best Presidents ever. Truman, Eisenhower, and Woodrow Wilson are also rated highly by history.

Of the 44 Presidents the U.S. has had, four died in office of natural causes. Admittedly, all but FDR would likely have had their lives prolonged several years, had they had access to modern medical care. But it’s still reasonable to say, about 10% of the past Presidents died (of natural causes) in office and there’s about a 10% chance Bernie would do so, too. That doesn’t seem like a reason to discount him. And, by the way, his putative opponent for the Democratic Party nomination — Hillary Clinton — would be 69 at inauguration herself.

I’ve already argued that the question, “Is he too old to be President” is the wrong question, from an actuarial perspective. But of course it’s also the wrong question from a political perspective. From a political point of view, the question is, “Is he too old to get elected?”

The oldest voters are the only group that have been more inclined to actually go to the polls in recent years.

One factor to consider is that the large pool of Baby Boomers — about 75 million people aged 51–69 — probably don’t feel that Sanders is too old. And those voters are just entering the period of “peak voting”. Since the early 1960s, voters over 65 years of age are the only group who have tended to vote more, not less, with each passing election. Of course, those older voters aren’t numerous enough to elect a President, and they won’t all vote Democratic. But in spite of Bernie’s avuncular style — or should I say because of it? — he’s attracted a large pool of enthusiastic Millennial supporters.

On the Republican side, current leaders Donald Trump and Ben Carson would be 70 and 65, respectively. Neither of those two are tipped to actually be the Republican candidate, but third place GOP candidate, Jeb Bush, would be almost 64 at his inauguration — hardly a spring chicken. Considering that the standard deviation in the life expectancy stats I’ve been quoting is at least six years, none of them could point to Sanders age as a deal breaker, without calling their own ages into question.

The next-most-popular GOP candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are both in their forties. They could try to make age an issue, but only at the risk of highlighting their own immaturity.

Bernie Sanders’ popular appeal is not limited—or even really based on—older Americans. Judging from my social media feeds, he’s popular with potential voters of all ages.

Is Bernie Sanders old? Yes he is. And he’d be the oldest person ever sworn in as President. But what matters is life expectancy. At his swearing-in, he’d have a longer life expectancy than any number of past Presidents, including great ones like FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower.

In the Depression, then WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. elected Presidents who were all as old as Bernie Sanders is, by the standards of the day. You might say wisdom prevailed.

Mark Gardiner

Written by

Helping brands connect with mature consumers as @BrandROI. Author, “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s”. AKA @Backmarker.

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