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Surveyed U.S. voters express concern for the 'mental fitness' of older politicians


For more on age and politics, we turn to Larry Sabato. He is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Welcome to the program.

LARRY SABATO: Thank you so much.

RASCOE: So let's start with that NPR/PBS/Marist poll that just came out. It shows a significant majority of Americans say President Biden's mental fitness is a, quote, "real concern." What do you make of that number? Sixty-two percent is pretty high.

SABATO: It is indeed high, and it's something the White House has to be concerned about. I think there are two pieces to this. The first piece is obvious, which is that Joe Biden is already the oldest president in American history by quite a ways. But the other piece, to me, is more interesting. I think when people are unhappy about a president, many people, including partisans from the same party as the president, look for something to cite to express their unhappiness or disagreement with the president on substantive terms. And right now, we know the country is unhappy for lots of different reasons. I think inflation would be at the top of the list, but partisanship is at a record high, at least for modern times. And there are many other issues that come into this.

RASCOE: Why do voters vote for older politicians and then turn around and question their mental fitness?

SABATO: Well, that's a good question. And we're all thinking of Senator Dianne Feinstein in this era. There was Senator Strom Thurmond in an earlier era. He actually served in the Senate until he turned 100. So yes, I mean, this affects both parties. There are elderly politicians in both parties. I guess you could say they don't know when to quit. They don't know when to get off the stage, which is a problem for all of us. We need to know when to get off the stage.

RASCOE: But people vote for them, too. People just keep voting for them, right?

SABATO: Yes. That's exactly right. Now, why does that happen? Partly, it's a function of party identification in a time when we have intense partisanship. If that candidate gets the party nomination, even if he or she is 85 or 90 or 96 years old, they will usually be reelected. It's also a function of name ID, respect for the individual, probably looking back on a successful career. I know people don't like to be cruel about it, but at some point, it really isn't in the interest of the individual public official, and it certainly isn't in the interest of the electorate in that state. But people often don't see it that way.

RASCOE: Turning to the Republicans, former President Donald Trump is leading the Republican contenders. He's 76. During Trump's presidency, there was all sorts of talk about his mental fitness. But does it just read differently because of who Trump is and also that there's a whole lot of other stuff that people can kind of pick on when it comes to Trump?

SABATO: Well, certainly, that's true. If you're going to list your concerns about Trump, you wouldn't start with age. But he is very assertive. No matter what he's saying and no matter what he's doing, whether it's wise or not to be assertive, he is assertive. And one way to evaluate the assertiveness is to suggest that this person has a lot of energy, and that's the way it should be for a president or presidential candidate. So I think Trump benefits from that.

RASCOE: Is there any way to maybe make sure that people aren't serving beyond the age where they're mentally and physically able to?

SABATO: You would have to have a constitutional amendment to require that congressmen and senators or presidents not serve beyond a certain age. But it's never going to be passed, so I wouldn't worry about it. You know, in the end, in a democracy, you have to depend upon the good sense of the electorate. Sometimes, we're disappointed, but still, the good sense and good judgment of the electorate is the ultimate doorstop.

RASCOE: But why haven't we seen more support for younger candidates in either party?

SABATO: Well, one thing you have to consider is that the lifespan has been lengthening. And that, of course, is a good thing - so that today, 70 isn't necessarily seen as old, for example, which it certainly once was when Eisenhower turned 70 toward the end of his two terms. I think also, it may be that parties and their electorates look at older candidates as more seasoned, less likely to make serious errors on the campaign trail or in office - simply people they can rely on to a greater degree. Now, we all know some younger people in public office can do at least as good a job, often a better job, even in terms of judgment. But these things are decisions that voters make based on the choice that they have. And it's the partisan electorate. It's a much smaller group of people than the general electorate that make the decisions on the candidates that will appear on the fall ballot. So a lot of this is predetermined when people go to the polls.

RASCOE: That's Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us.

SABATO: I enjoyed it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.