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Analysis: Hillary Clinton faces steep generational climb on the road to the White House

The younger nominee usually wins, and the age gap between Clinton and a number of her GOP opponents is bigger than what Reagan overcame

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

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If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2016, at age 69, she will be the second oldest person ever elected to the presidency, just behind Ronald Reagan and just ahead of the ill-fated William Henry Harrison, who perished after just a month in office back in 1841.

shumate_mugAnd if she wins, Clinton will have overcome a fundamental feature in modern American presidential politics — namely, that the younger presidential nominee is usually victorious.

In the thirteen presidential elections since 1960, the younger candidate has won seven times. However, in two other elections — Johnson vs. Goldwater in 1964 and George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000 — the candidates were roughly the same age. (Johnson had just a year on Goldwater; Bush had two on Gore.)

So, in only four of the 13 elections did the candidate who was appreciably older pull off a victory. Two of those were won by Reagan, and, in all four, the age gap was substantially less than what Clinton may face in 2016. (The other two were George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Richard Nixon in 1972.)

Now 67, Clinton is more than 20 years older than four of the likely Republican prospects — U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Governors Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal. Indeed, Rubio and Jindal are both 43 — a whopping 24 years younger than Clinton.

To put it another way, Clinton was already studying law at Yale when Rubio and Jindal were still in diapers.

Reagan was the oldest man ever elected to the presidency when he beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he was just 13 years older. In contrast, the average age of the 10 leading Republican prospects in 2016 is 52 — 15 years younger than Clinton.

In fact, only two of the likely candidates — former Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – even share the same decade as Clinton. Perry is 65; Bush, 62.

So, if history is prologue here, Republicans might do themselves some good by nominating someone who can present a generational contrast with Clinton. Bush would seem to be the candidate least able to do this, given his age and pedigree as the son and brother of presidents. But Rubio and Walker are both well positioned to make such a generational case.

Of course, it should be noted that Democrats tried, and failed, to make Reagan’s age a salient issue in both the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. Clearly, history can be defied. But if Democrats decide to nominate the oldest candidate in the field, save for longshot Democrat Bernie Sanders, they will be taking a generational and historical gamble.

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