You won’t find him at the front of any presidential preference surveys, but at this very early stage in the nominating process, here are two reasons why Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida bears watching.
First, as a “big tent” candidate advocating a sensible middle ground on immigration reform, Rubio arguably benefits the most among all GOP hopefuls should former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – now leading the elephant herd – stumble and fall.
Second, there’s the matter of Rubio’s birth certificate – not where he was born (that would be Miami), but when: 1971, thus making Rubio part of America’s Generation X, which spans the 15 years starting in 1965.
For Rubio, who’s 43 but looks even younger, that presents a potential problem: Republicans aren’t in the habit of choosing younger nominees. But if he can win the nomination, his relative youth could be a big advantage in the general election.
California’s John C. Fremont was all of 43 when he became the Republican party’s first presidential nominee in 1856. Abraham Lincoln, next up in 1860, was 51. But more recently, the “G” in GOP stands for “gray.”
Mitt Romney was 65 when he lost to President Barack Obama in 2012. Sen. John McCain was 72 when he lost to Obama in 2008. George W. Bush was 54 when he first won in 2000. However, Bob Dole was 73 when he lost in 1996. The average age of those four first-time nominees – 66.
Now, the Democratic numbers: Obama was 47 in 2008; John Kerry was 60 in 2004; Al Gore, age 52 in 2000; and Bill Clinton was 46 in 1992. That averages out to 51.
Why the interest in gerontology? The Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies mark the first time since the first quarter of the 19th century that America has seen three consecutive two-term administrations. Yet, except for Ivy League pedigrees, the three presidents have little in common other than none qualified for a senior discount at the time of their election, and all were parents, not grandparents, to girls ranging from pre-teen to college.
In theory, Rubio and Walker, who turned 47 last November, fit this post-Cold War profile of younger, child-rearing presidents (Walker has two college-age sons; Rubio has two sons and two daughters, none old enough to drive).
And in every presidential election dating to Clinton’s first win in 1992, the younger of the two nominees has won the popular vote.
That doesn’t bode well for Hillary Clinton. She’ll turn 69 just two weeks before Election Day 2016 (Elizabeth Warren would be 67, if you’re looking for an alternative). The last time the Democrats went with a first-time nominee of like age? Try James Buchanan, who was 65 in 1856 and, like Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state – and the consensus choice for the worst president in U.S. history.
This isn’t to suggest that age automatically settles our choice of a 45th president. However, in a Rubio-Clinton matchup, a 24-year age gap would give the GOP nominee a rare opportunity to share common experiences with 40-something voters – something a younger Obama twice used to his advantage.
As for the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting, the age issue would make for tricky choices. Would Clinton run as an Americanized version of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who offers herself as a no-nonsense Mutti (“mommy”) steering her nation through uncertain European times?
How would voters react to a hip grandmother wielding her designer shades and Blackberry (not to mention home servers and data storage)?
Age, we’re told, is just a number. But for Republicans, maybe it’s time to realize that when a presidential nominee’s age begins with a “4,” it’s usually meant four years in the White House.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.