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Trump and Biden: Two old candidates vie for young US voters

February 24, 2024

Joe Biden and Donald Trump, who will likely face off in the upcoming US presidential election, are both old men — no two ways about that. But what role does their age play in the race, and can they win over young voters?

A stern looking Joe Biden in front of a US flag
If he completes a second term as president, Joe Biden would be 86 by the time he left the White House in January 2029Image: Stephanie Scarbrough/AP Photo/picture alliance

The party primaries are still going on, but barring a major upset, the 2024 US presidential race will be a repeat of 2020: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump. That means that on election day, November 5, 2024, voters will likely choose between a 78-year-old in Trump and an 81-year-old in Biden. Should that be the case, the man inaugurated on January 20, 2025, would be the oldest person ever sworn in as president of the United States.

The median age of previous US presidents at inauguration was 55, according to the Pew Research Center. Whether Biden or Trump wins, the president won't be in his 50s this time around — he'll be in or enter his 80s while in office. Meanwhile, the median age of the US population is 38.9 years, according to the US Census Bureau

Unsurprisingly, age has become a significant factor ahead of this year's election.

"There is an objective concern about age. That's perfectly legitimate," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told DW. "I don't think people should be judged purely on their age. At the same time, it's obvious that the older you are, the greater chance you have of having serious health problems or meeting your maker a little bit before you planned."

What are the issues dogging Joe Biden's reelection campaign?

President Biden has repeatedly confused the names of world leaders and celebrities. Recently, when asked about the Middle East conflict during a news conference, he erroneously referred to Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as the president of Mexico — el-Sissi is the president of Egypt, and Mexico is in North America, not the Middle East. Biden also seems less physically dynamic during public appearances than when campaigning for the presidency the last time around.

"It's not the age itself [people] are worried about," liberal columnist and author Ezra Klein said on his podcast "The Ezra Klein Show." "It's the impression Biden is giving of age. Of slowness. Of frailty."

'Biden's age is a problem'

Trump is struggling with health issues, too, including being overweight. And he has had the same kind of slipups Biden has made. For example, he confused China and North Korea when he claimed in a speech in November that "Kim Jong Un leads 1.4 billion people." He also mixed up his former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who withdrew from the Republican race on Wednesday, March 6, and Nancy Pelosi, who was the House speaker during the second half of his lone presidential term.

However, young voters who spoke with DW said they were concerned about Biden's age in particular.

"I'm not 100% confident either [candidate] can fully do the job, but I think Trump has a better chance due to him seeming more 'all there,'" said Zack, 26, from the Midwest, who preferred not to share his last name for privacy reasons. "Sometimes when I watch Biden, I feel like he doesn't know what's going on at all."

US Vice President Kamala Harris attends a leaders' meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, holder an earpiece to her ear
Despite her relative youth, Kamala Harris hasn't been able to stir enthusiasm among the Democratic electorateImage: Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times/AP/picture alliance

The same worry persists among young people who oppose Trump's policies and, given the choice between Trump and Biden, would prefer the incumbent to remain president.

"I disagree with most of Trump's politics, and, therefore, Biden's age is a problem because, in comparison to Trump, he looks a little frailer," said James W., 29, who lives in New York City and also opted not to share his last name.

"Unfortunately, I think Trump could probably do his job better than Biden could," said Emma Lengel, a 23-year-old resident of Washington DC. "But neither is ideal, and Trump doing his job well does not bode well for the US."

Younger candidates not able to break through

Both Republicans and Democrats had younger candidates in the running at one point, but none could supplant their party heavyweights. On the Republican side, both Haley, 52, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 45, were considered promising prospects as recently as 2023. But both have since bowed out. 

On the Democratic side, it would be highly unusual for anyone to challenge Biden, a sitting president, for the party's nomination. Previously, several younger candidates competed against him for the top job during the 2020 primaries, including current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, now 42, and Vice President Kamala Harris, 59.

DeSantis drops out of 2024 US presidential race

When Harris was first announced as Biden's running mate, some observers speculated that his age would keep him from seeking reelection and she could be next in line for the job. However, Harris has been unable to sharpen her profile over the last four years, nor has she stirred sufficient enthusiasm among the Democratic electorate for the party to bet on her over Biden.

Tired of 'old, out-of-touch politicians'

Old age doesn't automatically put a candidate at a disadvantage or prevent them from connecting with younger voters. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who, at 82, is popular with college students and recent graduates, is living proof of that.

Washington resident Lengel also said old age was not a factor that would automatically disqualify candidates for her. But a lack of action on issues that mattered to young Americans was.

US Senator Bernie Sanders walks next to Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls during a rally outside the company building in Staten Island
At 82, US Senator Bernie Sanders has managed to connect with younger votersImage: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

"They need to actually address our concerns," she said. "I am so tired of all these old, out-of-touch politicians trying to get brownie points for pandering to us when, on a legislative level, they aren't doing anything really."

Rachel Lee, 24, who also lives in Washington, said she felt like "neither [Trump nor Biden] fully understand the difficulties of young people these days."

Trump, Biden 'old enough to be my grandparents'

Older presidents have managed to connect with young voters before.

"[President Ronald] Reagan left office at almost 78 years old," said politics expert Sabato. "You know what his rating showed? Young people were strongly supportive of him. He reminded them of a grandfather figure."

In Reagan's case, that appeared to have been a plus. But today's young voters are more skeptical about Biden and Trump.

"I think they do represent some of my views, but they are old enough to be my grandparents," Zack said. "How many of you have the same exact views as your grandparents?"

James also feels reminded of his elders by Trump and Biden — and not in a good way.

Trump holds gold Trump sneakers at his side
Former President Trump recently tried to appeal to voters with his own brand of gold sneakersImage: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Every time I watch them speak, it feels like watching my grandparents when they get worked up about something," he said. "I just have to nod and say 'sure' because I feel like they won't understand any pushback."

What it comes down to, in the end, is the disconnect between young voters and politicians who are their grandparents' age. 

"To better reach younger [voters], parties need to actually work on and make better the issues most affecting our generation," said Lee.

Janelle Dumalaon contributed reporting.

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker