Sherry Phillips: 80 is an “arbitrary number.”
How does a senior voter view a senior candidate running for president of the United States?
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan sought a second term at age 73. He captured the older voters. In 1996, presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole, 73, lost the 60-and-over voter group.
President Joe Biden, 80, and former President Donald Trump, 77, are leading contenders in the 2024 race for a presidential term that would end in January 2029.
“Bugs me sometimes when people talk like anybody over 65 is elderly,” said Ruby Tobey, 86, Wichita.
“I feel like I’m doing good and have a lot of time ahead of me,” said Tobey, an artist. “I would think he could do a good job,” she said of a candidate in his 80s. She is hesitant, though, because of the toll the presidency could take on health. “It’s not like someone like me who can work hard and rest awhile.”
“When people get to that age, some folks are really sharp and some, not so much,” said Harvey County Commissioner Don Schroeder, 72.
“If someone’s really sharp and think they have the energy to do it, I really don’t have an issue with it. The thing is sometimes the energy goes down, and four years can make a big difference in how they are physically,” Schroeder said. “My only caveat to that would be I would hope they would understand that if they decline physically and mentally, then they would give up that office.”
Odean Moore, 88, of Wichita, worked for the federal government and then gave care to others. She didn’t fully retire until her late 70s. Her advice to a candidate at or near 80: Retire and enjoy old age.
“I’m not saying it would be impossible to be president when you’re in your 80s, but I think it would be quite a challenge,” said Wichitan Myron Frick, 79, who still does vehicle body shop work.
“I think after people get older, they don’t heal as well after they get sick or they have health problems. I don’t think they think as clearly or as quickly as younger people,” Frick said.
“The arbitrary number of 80 is just that,” said Sherry Phillips, 80, of Wichita. “I worry about people discarding a very capable individual because of their age. That’s ageism, and we fought a lot for our rights to be able to continue to work.”
Phillips noted that U.S. Supreme Court justices don’t have an age limit — the oldest on the bench was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., retiring at 90 — and that some younger officeholders aren’t qualified to serve. She mentioned 34-year-old U.S. Rep. George Santos of New York, who recently pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering.
Phillips thinks President Biden has done well, but she hopes neither Biden nor Trump will run in 2024.
Wichitan Paul Wilcoxen, 83, said it can’t be predicted when a mind is going to slip. A candidate at 80 can have a sharp mind, but that can change in a matter of weeks or months, Wilcoxen said, and it’s more likely to happen to people in their 70s and 80s than in their 50s and 60s, he said.
“I feel like someone around 80, if their mind is good, they’re OK, but I think probably somebody around that age in politics should have to be tested probably yearly to make sure their mind isn’t starting to go,” said Wilcoxen, who had a career in construction.
To Wilcoxen, it’s obvious that Biden’s mental abilities have faded, and he wonders which non-elected personnel in his administration are making decisions. He calls it “kind of upsetting” that there are people running the country who didn’t get elected.
“Trump’s mind’s good now, but when will his mind slip? I don’t know. But the older we get, the greater the chance it’s going to happen,” Wilcoxen said.
Ada Soyez, 76 and a retired nurse in El Dorado, thinks being over 80 is too old for the presidency.
“I think it needs to be a younger person, but yet we need to have one that has lots of experience,” Soyez said, specifying the experience of having served in the military.
“I think 80 needs to be a cutoff line, definitely,” Soyez said.
David “Chester” Chesmore, 84, of Derby, was an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Air Force, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with a candidate running for president in his 80s.
“Do a good job, that’s the main thing,” Chesmore said. He elaborated on the qualities desired: Be honest with people, be very truthful, and try to get along with other people.
Wichitan Bonnie Krenning worked in nursing and management,. She retired at 79 and is now 92.
“I think most of it depends on their health,” Krenning said. “If they are well and everything, they can be just as effective at that age as someone younger,” she said. A candidate’s health habits have to be weighed, too, she said.
Elma Broadfoot was mayor of Wichita from 1993 through mid-1995. She’ll be 80 in August.
“Our society, I believe, has pretty much told us or led us to believe that people beyond a certain age kind of lose the ability to function properly and particularly from a thinking standpoint.”
She thinks she can still problem-solve and bring reason and logic to her view of things.
“There may be people 80 or older, certainly younger, who don’t have the abilities to function, in this case, as president of the United States,” she said. She said she’s seen Biden’s missteps — physically and in speech — but overall she thinks he has had “a very effective presidency.” A couple of his opponents don’t function quite as well, particularly morally, Broadfoot said.
In the 2020 presidential election, ocer 20 percent of ballots were cast by voters age 65 or older.
The general wisdom from political scientists looking at older voters is that they don’t constitute a bloc, according to David Ekerdt, professor emeritus of sociology and gerontology at the University of Kansas.
“You’d think they would, but they don’t,” Ekerdt wrote in an email.
Like voters at other ages, their votes are more likely to be based on things like political preference, gender, income, and urban/rural background.
“They just don’t vote only as 60-, 70- or 80-year-olds,” Ekerdt said.
In 1996, former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, 73, challenged a White House incumbent young enough to be his son, President Bill Clinton, then 50.
Don’t raise the age issue yourself, Dole was advised in a debate memo, according to campaign papers in the archives and special collections at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
A debate briefing book offered a potential answer if Dole was asked if he was too old to be President:
“No. Was Winston Churchill too told to be Prime Minister of England? Was Charles DeGualle too old to be President of France: Was Ronald Reagan too old to be President? Is Nelson Mandela too old to lead South Africa? All of these men served their countries well into their late 70s – and beyond in some cases,” the potential response began.
A briefing book suggested Dole could go on the offensive, asking Clinton why hadn’t he released his extensive health records, and noting a report that showed Dole had better weight, cholesterol and blood pressure numbers than Clinton.
At a town hall debate in October 1996 in San Diego, a university student asked Dole “about the controversy” surrounding his age. “How do you feel you can respond to young voices of America today and tomorrow?” she asked.
“Well, I think age is very — you know, wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence. And if you have some of each — and I have some age, some experience and some intelligence — that adds up to wisdom. I think it also is a strength. It’s an advantage,” said Dole, soon segueing to his economic plan.
“I can only tell you that I don’t think Sen. Dole is too old to be president. It’s the age of his ideas that I question,” Clinton responded, shifting to college student aid.
Dole addressed his age in his acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention.
“Now I know that in some quarters I may not — may be expected to run from this, the truth of this, but I was born in 1923, and facts are better than dreams and good presidents and good candidates don’t run from the truth.”
A study two years after the 1996 election chastised the media for not taking a deeper look into Dole’s health and the risks of electing someone in their 70s, when the chance of stroke, dementia, or other health setback is higher.
Authors Herbert L. Abrams and Richard Brody referred to polls during the election that showed “the older the voter, the more likely he was to believe that Dole’s age would be an obstacle.”
“Older Americans,” the study said, “did indeed project on Dole their own experience with health and the problems of aging.”
Contact Mary Clarkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.