We are headed toward a replay of 2020, with the oldest candidates ever nominated for president. How much does candidate age matter in elections and how do voters judge older and younger options? If voters are disappointed with older candidates, why do they keep electing a gerontocracy?

Jennifer Wolak finds that voters do stereotype older and younger candidates but not to the disadvantage of older options. But she also finds that older members of Congress have lower approval ratings. Semra Sevi studied the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, finding that bringing age to voters’ attention did not affect their electability assessments. But in other research, she finds that younger voters prefer younger candidates globally. They both say our older candidates are the product of the system, not the voters.

Guests:  Jennifer Wolak, Michigan State University; Semra Sevi, University of Toronto

Studies: “Do Voters Care about the Age of their Elected Representatives?”; “Too Old to be President?


Matt Grossmann: Do voters dislike old candidates? This week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

We’re headed toward a replay of 2020, with the oldest candidates ever to choose from for president. How much does candidate age matter in elections, and how do voters judge older and younger options? If voters are so disappointed with the older options, why do they keep electing a gerontocracy?

This week I talked to Jen Wolak of Michigan State University about her political behavior article with Damon Roberts, Do Voters Care About The Age Of Their Elected Representatives? She finds that voters do stereotype older and younger candidates, but not to the disadvantage of older options. But she also finds that older members of Congress have lower approval ratings.

I also talked to Semra Sevi about her American politics research article Too Old To be President. She studies the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, which featured two older options, Biden and Bernie Sanders. But bringing age to voters’ attention did not affect their assessments of how candidates would perform in the general election. In other research, she does find that younger voters prefer younger candidates globally.

Let’s start with Wolak, who used an experiment to study the effects of age.

All right, so what were the major findings and takeaways about how voters react to candidate age?

Jennifer Wolak: So we were interested in understanding how people feel about candidates who are both young and old, and whether older candidates were preferred and younger candidates were disliked. And we used both experiments and surveys to try to figure out how people evaluated younger and older candidates.

Matt Grossmann: So let’s start with some of the basics, that I think people know, our politicians are pretty old, but how old are they? And what are the popular explanations for why we live in this gerontocracy?

Jennifer Wolak: So one slice of the data is just to realize that maybe about a quarter of the voting electorate are baby boomers, but baby boomers make up half of the House of Representatives and two thirds of the Senate. Even in the state legislatures, the average state legislator is about 10 years older than the average voter in the state [inaudible 00:02:12] at the time.

So why do we have so many old people representing us? One reason is just we designed a system to favor the old people. There are constitutional requirements about how old you have to be to serve in the House, to serve in the Senate, to serve as president. And the states have imposed a lot of those same rules for serving in the state legislature as well. So that definitely restricts younger candidates from being able to run.

There’s also an idea that older candidates might be advantaged because they have experience, they have seniority, they have a track record of accomplishments, and so it may be that voters might prefer older candidates because of what they can offer over a less experienced newbie to office who’s younger.

Matt Grossmann: So you set up a survey experiment to figure out how voters would react to different candidates, and you compared a 23-year-old to a 77-year-old candidate. So tell us what the setup looked like to the folks who were responding to it, and what you think they were doing when they were comparing these two.

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, so this experiment was conducted right around the 2020 election and the vignette described a state legislative candidate, and we kind of just give some basic sort of candidate details around it, but then vary whether they’re 23, 55 in the control condition, or 77. And we were interested to see whether people preferred an older or younger candidate as well as whether older people liked older candidates and younger people liked younger candidates.

And we found it didn’t matter at all. Age didn’t matter for how people evaluated this candidate. The people were just as likely to say they’d vote for the 77-year-old as the 55-year-old, just as likely to vote for the 23-year-old as the 55-year-old. And there was no meaningful age variation either. Young people did not prefer younger candidates, old people did not prefer older candidates.

Matt Grossmann: But there were some signs that they did pick up on the age that you mentioned because they did describe the candidates somewhat differently. What did you find?

Jennifer Wolak: At the end of the survey, we asked people about traits of the candidates. How did they perceive the candidates as people? Did they see them as… see the [inaudible 00:04:23] candidate they read about as being experienced and knowledgeable, qualified to serve? And this is where we found the biggest age differences. The younger candidates were seen as being less qualified to serve and less experienced. And those perceptions certainly could work against them when they sought party nominations or maybe tried to run as candidates in faced opposition from people who thought they wouldn’t be good to represent the party.

Interestingly, they also saw the younger candidates being less conservative and that again, could be something that leads younger candidates to be penalized in election settings.

Matt Grossmann: And was there anything else in the vignette that would’ve linked to experience or ideology or anything like that, or people were just picking up this from age?

Jennifer Wolak: Age alone, the details of the candidate were fairly thin issue statements and a little bit about their experience, and nothing there to mention age in particular, beyond the age mentioned.

Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned that there are a few prior experiments that looked at a variety of candidate characteristics that did find some age effects. So how different were your findings and what might explain them?

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah. The previous work on this has often been focusing on conjoint experiments where two candidates are put in head-to-head matchups, and they vary on multiple dimensions. They might vary on their partisanship, their age, their gender, their racial background, their ethnicity. And in those sort of settings there is a preference for middle-aged candidates, and sometimes penalties for older candidates.

But we were interested in taking out the comparison part of it and just see how people evaluate candidates on their own, to think about what kinds of traits they assigned to them and whether they were just less likely to support the candidate without comparing them to an opponent.

Matt Grossmann: So you also have another part of the study where you look at approval of individual members of Congress by age. So how do you do that and what do you find?

Jennifer Wolak: So we take advantage of the Cooperative Election Study, which is a national survey that’s been done every election year since 2006. And so we have a ton of data about people asked about their very own representative in Congress and whether they approve or disapprove of the job they’re doing representing them.

And so we combine all the respondents and we look to see whether those represented by older representatives were more cynical about the representative than people who are represented by younger representatives. And here we found more age differences than we had found in the experiment.

Overall, there’s a small but statistically significant penalty for advanced age. There’s about a two percentage point difference in approval between a 30-year-old who’s serving in Congress and an 80-year-old, once you hold constant things like shared partisanship and seniority and legislative effectiveness.

Matt Grossmann: So this wasn’t about experience, this is the age itself.

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, we definitely can separate out just an age penalty from being an accomplished member of Congress or serving for a long time.

Matt Grossmann: And was there a lot of variation here where this was maybe driven by a few very old or very young members, or this was pretty consistent?

Jennifer Wolak: Pretty consistent. There wasn’t necessarily differences across the survey years [inaudible 00:07:49] over time.

Matt Grossmann: And how would you interpret that relative to your vignette? Is it that when you have your own member and they’re older, you notice more things about them or differences in the design?

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, it’s not perfect to know exactly why we see an age penalty there. It might be that there’s things that are tied to being in office that are different than what you’re looking for in a new candidate that you’re seeking out.

There is a possibility that there is differences in how older members are serving that we’re not capturing in our controls for effectiveness or seniority. So there might be some sort of substantive difference in how they’re serving. So the fact that it’s a very small penalty to me says it’s not terribly inconsistent to what we’re finding in the experiment. Age is not a huge consideration in how people see either candidates or the representatives who elect them.

Matt Grossmann: And here you find what you expected to find in the experiment that there are differences by age and it’s younger voters that penalize them.

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, so voters who are over the age of 50 don’t really care whether their representative is older or younger, but under the age 50, there is a greater penalty for being an older representative in Congress.

So for someone who is age 18, there’s about a six point penalty for being an 80-year-old representative in Congress compared to being a 30-year-old representative in Congress. So about triple what we find for the average respondent.

Matt Grossmann: So that’s probably pretty big compared to differences across representatives and their overall approval levels. I imagine six points is pretty big. Yeah?

Jennifer Wolak: Yes. Yeah, there’s definitely an interesting argument there to say that young people might have greater demand for younger candidates, but at the same time you have to look at these anecdotal stories, where Bernie Sanders was incredibly popular among young voters when he was in the primary race and age wasn’t as important as other considerations to young people when they’re looking at the primaries.

Matt Grossmann: And I know you’ve done some other work on this individual member approval. So how do the age differences compare to things like gender and race? And I assume it’s a lot less than partisanship?

Jennifer Wolak: Partisanship swamps everything. The magnitude of the effect is pretty small, but I think it’s probably on par with what a gender penalty might be, or what a penalty for being a minority representative in Congress.

Matt Grossmann: So the other article for this episode looks specifically at the 2020 Democratic presidential primary that you mentioned, older candidates of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. And there they find that what they do to prime age doesn’t make a difference in people’s views of the candidates, or even whether they think they would do well in general elections. So how do you think that fits in with what you find?

Jennifer Wolak: I think that fits in with a lot of the stuff we find about the bias people hold toward gender, or toward age, toward race, is that in isolation people will apply negative stereotypes to the group. But in the reality of politics, these things get swamped by other considerations.

So people definitely stereotype women candidates, and at the end of the day, women are just as likely to win elections as men because people are just not going to vote based on the stereotypes. They vote based on their partisanship or incumbency or other things that they value a lot more than just gender stereotypes. And I think that’s the same story for age, is that age is something that comes up, but it’s just not as important as other considerations at the time of decision.

Matt Grossmann: So we’re talking about this now, obviously because we are about to encounter another election that will set another record for the oldest presidential candidates on both sides. And although there’s not a huge difference, I think four years between the two likely nominees, President Biden is the one facing a lot more voter-expressed and media concerns about his age.

So how should we think about how age is playing out this year, and maybe whether there’s a distinction between the actual age of the candidates and just how they appear or the effects of aging?

Jennifer Wolak: So I think the story of what’s going on with Biden is that people don’t know anything about him. Anyone listening to this podcast is an utter nerd and knows things about politics and can list off a long list of accomplishments during the Biden presidency. But the average voter knows virtually nothing about Biden as president. They’re not paying attention to any sort of news with any regularity. They don’t know the kinds of things he’s accomplished in office. And they don’t necessarily know what he stands for.

In a lot of ways, his election in 2020 was that he was not Donald Trump, and that doesn’t necessarily stand up as a strong identity once you’re president. So I think that people lock in on age because it’s one of the only things they know about Biden. And they focus on it because it’s something they know and it’s arguably salient. It’s different from other stereotypes in that it’s socially acceptable to be like, I’m concerned about the age of a candidate, because age is tied to actual performance in office.

So this kind of focus on age is, in some sense, overblown because they’re both very old candidates, but it’s sensible to me that voters are focusing in on this when they have very little else that they know about the candidates.

Matt Grossmann: And what do you make of how it’s being discussed this time versus last time when you were publishing this article? It does seem like it’s being treated quite a bit differently this time. It’s Biden’s main weakness as portrayed in media coverage of the campaign. Does this suggest that we’re finally to this point when this really does matter enough this time that the parties will try to nominate younger people in the future?

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, it definitely seems like Biden’s struggling to escape from the “Sleepy Joe” labeling and the critical comments about his age and mental capacity. And it’s hard to know whether this will be something that matters in the future because we have a long history of going after candidates for being old. Reagan was criticized for being terribly old when he ran for reelection in 1984 at the age of 73. And John McCain was criticized for being older than his opponent. And so, this has been a recurring theme of politics and it hasn’t led to younger candidates yet. So there’s reasons to be pessimistic about whether this will lead to change in the future.

Matt Grossmann: So gender research sometimes finds that there are clear stereotypes associated with male and female candidates, but that some of those might be adaptable for candidates, that sometimes candidates could either counteract those stereotypes or kind of lean into them. How well does that apply to the stereotypes surrounding old and young candidates?

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, this is a place where there’s interesting divergence between the stereotypes we have about age outside of politics and the stereotypes we have about age inside of politics. Generally speaking, if you watch advertisements, you know that young is better. Young people are more vital, and they set the trends and that’s what we aspire to all be younger than what we are. But in politics, advanced age has sometimes been a good thing. It connotes gravitas and wisdom and experience and knowledge and being more qualified to serve. And Biden has not been able to harness those kinds of positive stereotypes about age so far.

Matt Grossmann: So he’s getting some advice along those lines that there’s some things he should lean into, either take advantage of his grandfatherly image or joke about age the way people assume that Reagan was successful in doing. Are you skeptical of that advice or do you think that there is any kind of strategy that might work here?

Jennifer Wolak: I think that’s nutty. I think that right now voters are focusing in on his age because they know nothing else. And the better strategy is to try to point out to the things he’s done in office, the kinds of things he’d do in a second term, his vision for the country, because voters care about those things more. The sheer power of partisanship over any of these demographic factors suggests that these things only can really matter on the margins. And so, the more Biden can move the agenda off these personal traits to focus on political factors, better off he’ll be for re-election.

Matt Grossmann: Is that also true of the race and gender stereotypes or is there something different here where for women candidates they have to somehow play into those stereotypes but shouldn’t be true here? Or is that just always bad advice?

Jennifer Wolak: I think the literature is pretty mixed on that for gender. Some people certainly think that women candidates are benefited by emphasizing the kind of positive gender stereotypes about being cooperative and good at compromise. In other cases, we don’t necessarily find evidence that’s true. So, hard to say.

Matt Grossmann: So, as you mentioned in explaining elected official demographics, our first instinct is often to blame the voters, but then when we do research, we find that actually the problems exist earlier in the pipeline or that they’re more due to political elite decision-making than voter decision-making. Is this another case where that’s true? We get older candidates not because voters want them, but because something in the pipeline or the elite process incentivizes them?

Jennifer Wolak: I think that’s definitely true. Certainly when you look at what people voters were saying about the candidates in 2020, one of the most common comments about Biden is his age. It was stuck to him then. And so, it’s never been a positive for him in the office. And so, people aren’t selecting Biden on that characteristic as a flaw.

Matt Grossmann: And so, if it was the case that we got a whole bunch of new, younger candidates running for Congress and presented them to voters and the elites were convinced young candidates could do just as well, would we lower the age in Congress quite a bit? Or is there still something that voters might react against there?

Jennifer Wolak: I think a lot of people would be keen on that. Certainly if you look at surveys, there’s people who’d like to see younger people running. Young people especially grumble about not having more young people in office. But for me, I always think of this curious case in Colorado.

In 2018, Colorado had a ballot initiative to lower the age to serve in the state legislature. They have one of the highest age limits in the country at 25. You have to be 25 to serve in the state house or the state senate. And there was a proposal to move it down to 21, just still above the voting age, but it makes it easier for young people to get a foot in the door and start their political careers. And voters voted against this. Like two-thirds of Colorado voters voted no on this. And young people were very pessimistic about it too, at least my anecdotal data, talking to young people at the time, they didn’t think that 21 year olds should be serving in the state legislature.

So, people have these sort of complex and sometimes contradictory stereotypes about age, and so there’s not necessarily one consistent story about age being a good or a bad thing. It does depend on the situation, it depends on how it’s framed, and it’s not as tidy as maybe old, bad, young, good.

Matt Grossmann: So one of the things that might be tied up with it is this experience question in the experiment and in the data analysis you were able to divorce experience from age, but presumably part of the issue of running for state legislature is that you have some people who have been politicians before or who have held some office at the local level, they’re more likely to be of advanced age. I guess does that make it different than other demographic characteristics or is that the same kind of thing we see in the pipeline for women or minority politicians?

Jennifer Wolak: Well, there’s interesting stuff that suggests that maybe experience isn’t valued in the same way it used to be. There’s definitely a rise of outsider candidates over the last few years where people have been able to effectively campaign on being not someone who served before, from being outside the party machine. And so, if age gets divorced from these positive experience stereotypes, then it definitely starts to become much more of a liability than a benefit in politics.

Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned that people feel that it’s socially acceptable, the whole biases related to age. Is there any justification for that? Should voters be considering age, at least at a certain point in evaluating their politicians?

Jennifer Wolak: We don’t have nearly enough evidence to answer that. The most suggestive study I could find was one from Vermont from many years ago. And it’s super interesting because the author of the study finds that younger candidates, younger people in the state legislature are proposing more legislation, but the older legislators are much more effective at getting their bills passed into law. So it’s hard to dismiss age as not being important to how a politician might govern in their term. It’s reasonable to expect that a young candidate might approach the job differently compared to an older candidate, but we don’t know for sure.

Matt Grossmann: So part of the current debate we’re having is Democrats are saying that this is basically ginned up by the media. The media wants something to say and it’s not a very exciting race, and so age is there. We just had the investigator give them a reason to talk about age again, and they really went for it. The media themselves say, “Well, look at surveys or focus groups. Voters mention it all the time.” And we have kind of this chicken and egg problem related to it. So how do we think about that in other areas like in race and gender, and how might that be applicable to this kind of situation? To what extent are these things that are made up in the media discussion versus come out of voters or how do those things work together?

Jennifer Wolak: Yeah, definitely the focus on age is being driven by the sort of narrative storytelling about how we should understand Biden’s last four years in office. I think it’s different from gender and race because there’s sort of a lot of people don’t think of those as being legitimate criteria to evaluate candidates. And to the degree to which we are going to link age to either stereotypes that are good or bad about being older or younger, or potentially real evidence that younger candidates might actually approach the job differently than very old candidates, it’s going to be a hard one to take off the agenda. It has staying power in a way that a discussion about a candidate’s gender or race probably would not have.

Matt Grossmann: Molly studied congressional and fictional candidates, but Sevi took a look at age effects when it was a high profile issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

So tell us about the major findings and takeaways from your paper, Too Old to Be President.

Semra Sevi: Sure. Yeah, I’d love to. The major finding of that study is that contrary to theories of descriptive representation, the age of political candidates did not seem to have a significant impact in voters assessment of their ability to win a general election. So I conducted a survey experiment during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, which included several candidates in their 70s. They were all running to replace an incumbent president of the same age group. I primed age expecting it to influence voters’ perceptions of candidates’ physical and mental health, and probably their fitness as well, but my results show that priming the age did not have a significant effect on voters’ assessment of any particular candidates’ ability to win that general election.

Matt Grossmann: Remind us of the context here for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary, and the candidates’ ages and how it was being talked about then, and then tell us how much you think this study was about that specific circumstance, or would be generalized?

Semra Sevi: Sure. The 2020 presidential elections had two candidates that were in their 70s. We had Joe Biden who was 77, and Donald Trump who was 74. Keep in mind that the age of the average age of the House was about 57 at the time, and for the Senate, it was about 62, whereas the average age of Americans was 38.

In many ways, this was a historic first in the sense that, the 2020 election was the first presidential election in which most of the major candidates for the Democratic Party were in their 70s. We had Biden, Bloomberg, Sanders, and Warren, and all of them were competing to beat the oldest ever first-term president who was 74 at the time.

This was an ideal setting to study age effects and vote choice. The Democratic voters had to not only decide whether an older candidate should be their Democratic Party nominee, but they also had to assess whether that candidate could ultimately beat the incumbent Donald Trump in the general election. That was the context in which I had designed my experiment.

Matt Grossmann: Tell us about how the experiment worked. You said you primed age. What did you actually tell people, and what do you think it can tell us?

Semra Sevi: Sure. I should say that I started with the idea that whether priming the age of real candidates would affect voters’ opinions. If age matters, then making age salient should increase an existing preference for younger candidates. That was my starting point.

I fielded a survey experiment during the first few weeks of the Democratic primaries, this is before Joe Biden had emerged as the clear front-runner. Voters were asked to evaluate six major candidates for the Democratic Party nomination during Super Tuesday. The six candidates were the most prominent ones at the time of the survey. The candidate choices were presented to respondents in a random order, and they were assigned to one of two experimental conditions.

In the control group, they had information such as the name of the candidate and their most recent occupation. In the treatment group, they had that same information, but they were also primed to take the candidate’s age into consideration. Given the nature of voting in presidential primaries, Democratic voters would have to strategically support a candidate that they thought was most likely to beat Donald Trump in the general election.

That was my outcome variable, to assess which one of those candidates can beat Donald Trump. That was the design and the setup of the experiment, but making the age salient to the Democratic primary voters didn’t impact the assessment of the candidate’s ability to beat Trump.

Matt Grossmann: There is some other evidence from survey experiments with fictional candidates that suggest voters might not prefer the oldest candidates. Then, of course, we just have a lot of commentary, voter complaints and focus group comments this cycle, which suggests that voters think the candidates are too old. How would you square your findings from last time with other things that we’re hearing?

Semra Sevi: Yeah, that’s a good question, and it’s one that I’ve thought about as well, because I’ve done other work looking at age effects as well, and not just the one that we’re talking about right now. I think the way to think about this is, I was interested in looking at real candidates and not fictitious candidates, and there’s an argument to look at fictitious candidates as well.

Both of the studies that I did about age looks at real candidates, though this one in particular, about presidential candidates, I didn’t find effects, although I went in thinking that I would. I was pretty optimistic, thinking that there was something there.

I think one possible reason that I didn’t find effects, and I should say that this study should not be seen as a conclusive study, that there is no age effects. The study on focusing on age is just starting up. There’s not a lot of research in this area to begin with. This is just one of many research that should be conducted, looking at age.

I think one possible reason that I find the effects that I have is, that voters may have already formed their views about the candidates before they saw my experiment. Providing them with the age of the candidates may not have conveyed any new information, especially if they had already considered the age of the candidates, they’d already made their decision. They already factored the age of the candidates, presumably because age was a major focus in the media at the time.

There were several candidates in their 70s like Biden, Sanders and Warren. Their fitness to serve in office was talked about a lot in the media at the time. Sanders even experienced a heart attack in the early stages of his campaign. All of this drew a lot of attention to the candidate’s age in a way that it had not previously.

It may be that the voters that I had or respondents I had in my experiment were already exposed to the issues of age, and my treatments failed to convey anything new to them. I think that that might be a reason to explain the discrepancy between what I find and what other studies find, that there might be some impact.

Looking at hypothetical candidates where we usually find effects of age, there is the issue of external validity. Given that my design doesn’t have a manipulation check to rule out whether voters had already accounted for candidates’ age, I also have some limits in this study of talking about external [inaudible 00:31:58] questions, which is why I don’t think my study should be seen as conclusive. I do think age is a matter that we should pay a bit more attention to in the literature, compared to other candidate characteristics that have received a lot of attention, such as gender and race.

Matt Grossmann: I also talked to Jenny Wallach for this episode, and she has a survey experiment with a fictitious candidate where she also does not find an age effect on whether voters support the candidates, but she does find that voters do notice the age differences between the candidates, and they do attribute various strengths and weaknesses to them, on the basis of their age.

I guess, how would you think about that in relation to your finding? Is it possible that voters did notice, they just didn’t see it as an overwhelming, positive or negative, they just saw it as a difference with some ups and downs?

Semra Sevi: Yeah, that’s interesting. I see it, for my study, I think that voters had just, had already accounted for the age, and that’s why I’m not finding effect. For the other study, I think it’s interesting because it’s consistent with work on gender, for example, where when voters are asked how they feel about women candidates or politicians, they usually say they like them a lot more than their men counterparts.

Then, when they’re asked who would they vote for, women don’t tend to get a bump in their vote, among the same voters or respondents who said that they liked the woman candidates more. This is not surprising to me that voters might like younger candidates more than older ones, but not necessarily vote for them. It’s very much consistent with the other literature that we have, that looks at other candidate characteristics.

Voters don’t always act on their preferences when they come into practice. In that respect, it’s very much consistent with other work. Yeah.

Matt Grossmann: They expected to find that there would be some age effects in the same way that you’ve found in some previous work, that it would be younger people who would react more negatively to an older candidate, and they did not find that in the experiment. However, they did find that older members of Congress have lower overall approval ratings with their younger constituents.

They’re suggesting that there might be some weariness for the oldest politicians as they age with their younger constituents. Now, in the context you studied, it was interesting because there was a big age divide between Sanders supporters and Biden supporters. It’s just that both individual candidates were old, but they had different ages of supporters. How do you think about that relationship, between the constituents’ age and the candidates’ age?

Semra Sevi: Yeah. That leads to the other work that I did in electoral studies, looking at age affinity effects. With that study too, I thought that there would be age affinity effects. You’re more likely to vote for a candidate, or in my case, a political leader that is closer to you in age, than to vote for one that is further away from you in age.

The idea there is that, you might see age as a heuristic or a shortcut in the sense that, those that are closer to you in age might share similar policy preferences as you, and so you’re better represented.

Certainly, I started that project thinking along the lines that there is some sort of age affinity effect, and it was one of the very first studies to look at age affinity, especially-

Studies to look at age affinity, especially comparatively across 52 countries. I find that there is some age affinity effects, but it’s more pronounced among young people than it is among old people. Then the effects there are very small if we find anything. I do think that age affinity does appear to matter among younger people. We do often see in the literature that younger people are frustrated with older politicians, but they’re, I guess not sure what to do about it. They do end up also being the electorate that votes less. We do have older people who vote more, but we do see that young people evaluate, in the study that you’re talking about, older congressmen more negatively than their younger representatives. It does suggest that young people want politicians who share maybe similar policy preferences as their generation more than just candidates who can descriptively represent them. That’s where we see individuals like Bernie Sanders getting a lot of votes among young people. He’s not necessarily in their age group, but he has policy preferences that speak to them more than other candidates.

Matt Grossmann: You did do this cross-national research on age effects and finding that young people disliked older candidates or older leaders more than older people did. Situate that effect in two ways for me. First, just where you think… If you think what’s happening in the US would be pretty typical or at one end of the spectrum in terms of these effects and also in reference to other kinds of candidate effects. Are these age effects relatively small compared to things like gender, and race, and voters wanting candidates to look like them?

Semra Sevi: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that when we think about gender effects, for example, it’s not all that surprising that I find small effects for age affinity. It’s more believable actually, if I had found very big effects, that would raise some questions. Certainly when we think about candidate characteristics and we think about what are the most important candidate characteristics that drive voters or impact voters opinions. Age is not up there as one of the most important ones. We know that party identification is the most important, but if there are no party identifications in the elections, we often hear that gender race, and it’s actually quite new that we’re talking about age as being a factor among those other two characteristics. But given that, I find small effects and then the factor that is often talked about, gender, also finds small effects as much more believable than if I were to find huge effects for age when we know that gender affinity is not all that big in the existing literature itself.

Gender is something that people do see. Unlike age that can be hidden, or masked, or individuals grow out of, gender and race is presumably something that you are born into and you keep that throughout your whole life. People are more likely, voters are more likely to see and know what the race and the gender is. They’re less likely to know the age. I’m not even sure if voters know the age of the candidates, if the media isn’t talking about it. During the context of the Democratic primaries, it was talked about a lot.

During the comparative work that I do, I’m not sure that age was talked about a lot in all of those countries during those elections. It’s not something that I was able to look at. But in elections where age is not talked about, I’m not sure that voters are thinking about the age of the candidates or they can see it when they look at their posters or they might be able to guess if that person’s young, in the middle, or older, but I’m not sure that they know the exact age and where they are in their life. All that to say that the effects that I find should not be very surprising, it’s actually quite consistent with other work that looks at other variables.

Matt Grossmann: As you said in gender research, there is a lot of examples of voters making assumptions based on gender stereotypes, but that not necessarily leading to a clear advantage or disadvantage electorally for women candidates. It’s resulted in this big literature on surrounding, say Hillary Clinton, should she have tried to neutralize the stereotypical disadvantages of women by, say, focusing more on defense and strength, or should she have leaned into the stereotypical advantages of women by talking about healthcare and education? That’s talked about broadly. I don’t think we’ve reached a core answer there, but you see the same discussion when it comes to age now about whether can this be an image that President Biden leans into or is there no real benefit to doing that, or should he try to neutralize what people see as the disadvantages? How do you think about that?

Semra Sevi: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that there is a… Definitely in the gender literature, there’s a double-edged sword where if you lean into what voter stereotype is, being what women, politicians, or leaders should be doing, you might be seen as too soft and weak. But if you start to embrace some of those other traits you might be seeing as being opportunist and ambitious and maybe even… It’s funny because when they use those words for men leaders, it’s seen as a compliment. But when they use it as for women leaders, it’s actually not seen in the same way. For age, I think we are seeing some of that talk, although not to the same level as we see it for gender. For age, we can see Biden maybe trying to embrace the grandpa image, although it would be important for him to balance between that image and giving a genuine and relatable way of reinforcing other qualities that he has that are valued in a leader such as experience, wisdom, and understanding of contemporary issues.

I don’t think age has exactly the same kind of connotations as we see with gender, but surely younger candidates will embrace that they have different experiences, experiences with technology. They’re more likely to take risks. They can bring out different things to the forefront, whereas older candidates can focus on… He can joke about, and it might be more relatable to voters if he jokes about common aspects of agents such as forgetfulness or challenges that he has with technology that can help him with voters to be at a more personal level because most voters have those challenges, regardless of their age. But I think it’s important to find a balance between leaning in to his age a bit more, but also keeping the focus on the real goal, which is the other leadership characteristics he has such as his experience and wisdom.

Matt Grossmann: As you said, this is a pretty small literature right now. You’ve published multiple articles in it and probably constitute a large share of the published literature on age of candidates. But presumably this election will start a little bit of at least more research on candidate age effects. What are you expecting to see there and anything you’re working on that you want to tell?

Semra Sevi: Yeah, I think the future research should examine how much information voters have about the political leaders because I haven’t seen that. I don’t know if voters know the age of the political leaders when they’re assessing them. I thought that my survey experiment during the Democratic primaries primed the age, but in real life, I’m not sure that voters do know the age of a given candidate, especially when we think about other factors such as their gender or their ethnicity. I think this is an area that can be explored. Just like we look at the work of gender and voting behavior, I think that the link between the candidate age and voting behavior might be context specific so that in some contexts it matters and in others it does not. We should look at why should age matter in some elections and not others. I’d be interested in looking at these questions in the future. I don’t have anything at the moment on age, but I’m excited and I’m looking at the US elections with a lot of interest to see where this goes, since this is a very important topic at the moment.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website: Do the Parties Prefer White Male Candidates?, When Information About Candidates Persuades Voters, Racial Minorities Can Win Elections: Here’s What’s Holding Them Back, Why Scandals Don’t Add Up to Damage Candidates, How Parties Recruit and Limit Candidates. Thanks to Jenny Wallach and Semra Sevi for joining me. Please check out Do Voters Care About the Age of their Elected Representatives and Too Old to Be President, and then listen in next time.