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Does the Age of a Presidential Candidate Matter to Young Voters?

It does not appear to be a decisive factor for youth as they consider presidential candidates.

Few young people say that the age of a candidate matters to them. Youth (ages 18-29) have voted for the younger of the presidential candidates in a majority of recent elections, but the younger candidates have also generally been Democrats, which may explain young people’s choices. Some previous research finds that having the option of a younger candidate may boost youth turnout, but that research certainly does not suggest that the candidate’s age is a leading factor.

In seven of the last eleven presidential elections, a plurality of young people have voted for the younger presidential candidate. However, in six of those seven elections, the younger candidate was a Democrat. Only once has the Republican candidate been younger than the Democrat: in 2004, when George W. Bush ran against John Kerry.

In the four elections when youth support was greater for the older presidential candidate, young people supported John Kerry (D; 2004), George H.W. Bush (R; 1988), Ronald Reagan (R; 1984) and Gerald Ford (R; 1976).

Recently, the largest age gap between candidates came in 2008, when then-Senator Obama ran against Senator McCain. While far more youth supported Obama than McCain, youth did not say that age was a major factor. In fact, youth were no more likely than other age group to say that age was important to their vote.

Overall in 2008, more Democrats than Republicans reported that age was an important factor, but there were no big differences by age. Few young people, Democrats or Republicans, reported that the age of the candidates was “the single most important factor” in deciding their vote: only 6% of young Democrats and 4% of Republicans. Republican youth in 2008 were most likely to say that age was “not a factor at all.” It’s worth noting that many of those who were 18 to 29 years old in 2008 will be over 30 in 2016, and today’s young voters could have different opinions. Also, while age may not substantially affect young voters’ choice of candidate, recent research1 suggests that college students felt a greater “commitment to vote” in elections with a young candidate (when controlling for partisanship), and that competitive contests with a large age gap between senatorial candidates in competitive races saw a modest boost in turnout.

[1] Pomante, M. J., & Schraufnagel, S. (2014). Candidate Age and Youth Voter Turnout. American Politics Research, 1532673X14554829.