With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The 2020 Election and Presidential Age

Last week, 20 Democrats took to the debate stage over the course of two nights in hopes of becoming the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. On the second night in particular, the age gap between the candidates was striking. Joe Biden, 76, and Bernie Sanders, 77, shared the platform with Pete Buttigieg, 37. 

America has had 44 men serve in the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, 42 years old at his inauguration, was the youngest president and Donald Trump, 70 at inauguration, is the oldest. The average age for presidents at inauguration is slightly over 55 years old. 11 presidents were 60 or older; 24 were in their 50s; and nine were in their 40s at inauguration. 

For those who were 60 years and older, several have had health issues while in office.  Two out of 11 died in office: William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Ronald Reagan displayed signs of aging as many believed he was in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimers. Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack while in office. 

Several of the presidents who were elected in their 60s struggled to effectively lead. Two  of these Presidents, John Adams and George H. W. Bush, could not win reelection, and Gerald Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation, was unable to win a full term in the White House. Only three Presidents who served in their 60s and beyond--Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan--had what were regarded as outstanding administrations, making the top ten list of presidents in just about any scholarly poll.

Most of the remaining top 10 presidents were in their 50s when taking office (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson), with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who were in their 40s. 

Several candidates would raise the average age of presidents based on their age on the day they would be inaugurated: Bernie Sanders (79), Joe Biden (78), Elizabeth Warren (71), Jay Inslee (68), John Hickenlooper (67); and Amy Klobuchar (60). At the same time, several potential nominees in their 50s would be consistent with the average age of presidents: (from oldest to youngest) Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Steve Bullock, and  Cory Booker. The potential presidents who would be in their 40s on Inauguration Day would lower the average presidential age: (from oldest to youngest) Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, Seth Moulton, Eric Swalwell, and Tulsi Gabbard. Finally, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who would be only 39 years and one day old on Inauguration Day 2021, would be nearly four years younger than Theodore Roosevelt and four years and eight months younger than John F. Kennedy. Moulton, Swallwell, and Gabbard would also be younger than TR or JFK, but older than Buttigieg.

So the potential exists that we could have the oldest President in American history at inauguration with Sanders, Biden or Warren, or the youngest President in American history with Buttigieg, Gabbard, Swalwell or Moulton. If any of these seven take the oath, they will either raise the average age of American Presidents, or lower the age dramatically.