McCain's Unseen Adversary: Ageism

John McCain has a demonstrated record of vigor--one might say even youthful vigor -- in tackling tough issues on Capitol Hill. Always well briefed, the Arizona senator puts in long days and reads the legislative fine print in a way one wouldn't necessarily expect from a senior citizen. "He's quite frankly one of very few senators who tries to get the facts on the table," says a former Senate staffer who admires McCain's energetic efforts to bring defense contracting under control, along with his stand on other issues. "When you're up there on the Hill, you know what the government's position is, and what lobbyists are saying. Senator McCain was one of the few people who would urge his staff to call up other people and try to get the ground truth." McCain is also fearless and passionate about confronting vested interests in Washington, whether it's Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraq troop issue or Dick Cheney on interrogation rules. This is not a man who's going gently into that good night.

In practice, in other words, McCain still behaves very much like a young man, even though on paper he's 71. But the Arizona senator will have to work very hard to get that message out, because polls show that he is facing deep and widespread ageism in the U.S. electorate, especially among Democrats. Ageism is defined as prejudice against the elderly, based on the idea that they're slower, less competent--or perhaps just closer to death. Indeed, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Center, Americans are a lot less comfortable voting a man in his 70s into the Oval Office than they are voting for a woman or an African-American for president. In the poll, taken about a year ago before it was clear who the candidates might be, 48 percent of those surveyed said they were less likely to support a candidate in his or her 70s, versus 45 percent who said it didn't matter (5 percent said they were more likely to support him). But when asked how they felt about a female candidate, only 11 percent said they were less likely to support her because of her sex, and 75 percent said it didn't matter (13 percent said they were more likely to support her). The same question applied to African-American candidates? Only 4 percent said they were less likely to support the candidate because of his race, with 88 percent saying it didn't matter (7 percent said they were more likely to support him).

Some of these results may reflect a greater willingness by poll respondents to confess to ageism rather than to racism or sexism. But McCain's age is still a very real issue—far more than his once-notorious temper (which, ironically, perhaps because of his age, he's managed to rein in). Especially if McCain goes up against this election's newly anointed JFK stand-in, the truly young and vigorous Barack Obama, "he has to worry about those moments of weakness, when he looks haggard, or when he's going down the stairs--the sudden image that reinforces something in the back of people's minds," says Pew Research's Michael Dimock, who conducted the February 2007 poll. The classic example was the picture of Gerald Ford slipping and falling down the steps of Air Force One a year before he narrowly lost the 1976 election to (a then youthful) Jimmy Carter. McCain projects a manly vigor on TV, but "I do worry about the age if it's coupled with the cancer [McCain has had surgery for melanoma]," says one of his Republican supporters. "I'd want to look carefully at who his vice president is."

McCain, now the favorite to win the GOP nomination, clearly has a lot in his favor if he goes head to head with Obama or Hillary Clinton in the general election. Dimock says the experience card that Hillary is trying to play against Obama would almost certainly fall into McCain's hand if she were the nominee. This becomes especially important as voters get closer to pulling the lever and want to be sure that our national security won't be in untested hands, Dimock says. "That certainly benefits McCain. One of his strongest traits is competence and leadership, that commander-in-chief kind of notion that people have in their heads. If it's Clinton versus McCain, she's going to look like she's inexperienced. The only dark side on that front for McCain is his age."

If elected, McCain would be, at age 72, the oldest president to be sworn in. That would make him more than two years older than Ronald Reagan was when the latter took office, and age was a prominent issue in both the 1980 and 1984 presidential races. (Reagan famously disarmed the issue in a debate in 1984 when he said of Walter Mondale, "I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.") Still, according to Deborah Russell, the director of Workforce Issues for AARP, much of the U.S. population has grown more enlightened--not to mention much older itself--since then. "McCain running for president today as an older individual is more palatable, I think, than when Reagan was running for president simply because over the course of that time there's been a big demographic shift," says Russell. "You've got 76 million boomers in the workforce. And today all the research shows that a large percentage of boomers plan on working past retirement age into their 70s, and perhaps into their 80s."

McCain also has an "impressive cross-party image," says Dimock. "Among Democrats, his favorability rating is 50 percent favorable to 40 percent unfavorable. That's really good." Even so, far more Democrats than Republicans say they're concerned about the age issue, according to the Pew survey. And among the Democratic candidates, the vibrant Obama also has great crossover appeal in the GOP. So the 2008 race may well come down to age versus youth.