2024 GOP candidates, voters raise age as a concern on campaign trail

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's alarming health episode this week has just added to a debate over age already dominating the campaign trail.

Although it's not clear why the the 81-year-old McConnell's appeared to freeze during a news conference — it nevertheless prompted both candidates and voters to again ask: How old is too old to serve as an elected official — let alone to serve in the White House?

MORE: McConnell medically cleared by Capitol physician after apparent freeze episode

Thirty-eight-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy, the first millennial to run for the Republican nomination, said after an Iowa town hall on Thursday, "I do think that this country is badly in need of a leader who can reach the next generation with an actual affirmative vision that inspires young people."

GOP candidate Nikki Haley, 51, was blunt, calling the U.S. Senate the "most privileged nursing home in the country" on Fox News.

"It's sad. No one should feel good about seeing that, any more than we should feel good about seeing Dianne Feinstein or seeing Joe Biden's decline," she said of the longtime California senator and the current president. "You have to know when to leave."

Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

MORE: Biden took 'hard look' at his age, would run even if Trump wasn't

Their focus on age appears to reflect the concerns of a large portion of the electorate. Seventy-seven percent of the public, including 69% of Democrats, say Joe Biden, at age 80, is too old to serve another term, according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. A majority (51%) of those voters think that Donald Trump, who at 77 is just three years younger than Biden, is also too old to be president.

"As you can see now, we've got some of our leading politicians in their 80s — that makes a lot of difference. When they start losing their [faculties], they ought to have to resign or retire or whatever. But we need that so we can have a good government for people who can think good and look good. We have term limits for president so why not have it for Congress?" asked Max Hagen, an 85-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In conversations with ABC News on the campaign trail over the past five months, voters have routinely signaled apprehension over the ages of Biden, Trump, McConnell and other older politicians.

"It's a sad state of where we're at politically in this country that a lot of people are lifelong politicians," Randy Ervin, a 62-year-old retired UPS worker, said at a campaign event for Sen. Tim Scott in Newton, Iowa, this week.

"I think Mitch is a good example. Great guy, means well, but he's at a point in life where he needs to take care of himself and not be in that position … sometimes I'm not quite sure [Biden] knows what he's doing either. Again, he's a life-long politician. He's doing what's right for him and his party and not necessarily what's right for the country and that bothers me."

Donald Trump speaks as he campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, August 12, 2023.Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Republican candidates' alternatives

In her presidential launch, Haley floated the idea of requiring mental competency tests for politicians over 75. She often voices her support for the idea of term limits to induce "generational change" among elected officials and argues that any Republican wouldn't be running against Joe Biden in 2024's general election but could very well be competing instead against a future President Kamala Harris, a not-so-veiled suggestion about the life expectancy of the aging president.

In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America" after the first GOP debate, Haley said she would support Trump if he was convicted because "I am not comfortable with a President Kamala Harris," referring to Biden's vice president and running mate.

Haley has insisted that "there is no way" Biden would "finish his term," citing his age and a recent "decline" in his health.

On Thursday, she repeated her call for mental competency tests, suggesting that even candidates in her own age group should be screened.

"I wouldn't care if they did them over the age of 50," said Haley on Fox News."But these people are making decisions on our national security. They're making decisions on our economy, on the border."

Mitch McConnell appears to freeze up during a public appearance at an event with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Covington, Kentucky, August 30, 2023.WCPO via Reuters

Republican candidates also largely embrace term limits.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, 64, supports the idea. In July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 44, said he backed term limits to make room for generational change of leadership, speaking after McConnell's first public apparent freeze while making remarks on Capitol Hill.

"You kind of serve in your prime and then pass the baton to the next generation," DeSantis said. "I think this generation has not really been as willing to do that. Look, one of the reasons I'm running compared to Biden, I mean, my gosh, we need energy in the executive, you know, we need some vigor and vitality," DeSantis told conservative personality Megyn Kelly.

MORE: McConnell appears to freeze again during news conference

"I think most younger conservatives would say that they're generally in favor of some kind of guidelines and some term limits." said Joe Mitchell, 26, founder of the Conservative Run GenZ organization and a former Iowa state lawmaker who was the youngest member to ever be elected to the Iowa House.

Republican voters ABC News spoke with on the campaign trail cite Biden's age as a key reason they don't think he's fit to be president.

"I would say that 'Joe Biden' is way too old and very unfit to be president," said Jackson Rennix, a 19-year-old student at Temple University. "He has been in politics for like 47 years or something like that. We want to see new ideas as a young generation, as well as — he's unfit to serve in his mental state, like he can't really get a sentence out sometimes."

Most Democratic voters, elected officials downplay Biden's age

Among Democrats, Biden's age as a reelection concern is often downplayed by elected officials, who note that "broader issues"will be more important during a general election.

"When people look at a candidate, whether it's Joe Biden, or Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or anybody else, they have to evaluate a whole lot of factors," Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's 81 and ran against Biden for president in 2020, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in late August.

MORE: Broad doubts about Biden's age and acuity spell Republican opportunity in 2024: POLL

"I met with the president five or six weeks ago, we had a great discussion, he seemed fine to me. But I think at the end of the day, what we have got to ask ourselves is what do people stand for? Do you believe that women have the right to control their own bodies? Well, the president has been strong on that … Age is an issue, Chuck, but there are a lot of broader issues than just that."

Some voters agreed.

"I think Joe Biden is a good steward for the country … they’re trying to find any weakness because he's in his 80s. So what? That doesn't make a difference. He is the right man right now," Sandy Shocker, from Buckeye, Arizona, said.

President Joe Biden greets guests following a speech at Ingeteam Inc., an electrical equipment manufacturer, on August 15, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.Scott Olson/Getty Images

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, 54, has been one few outspoken Democrats over concerns about Biden's age heading into a tight 2024 general election.

"I love Joe Biden. I think he's a man of decency, of competency. His record is extraordinary. I voted for it. I helped market it and distribute it. I think the world of him. But I also believe my job is not to be bound to the president, to my party, but to the Constitution and country and right now I have grave concerns," Phillips said on CNN last month, pushing for other Democrats to jump in the race to primary Biden.

"I am scared. I'm trying to raise that bell, be the clarion call, if you will."

According to the AP-NORC poll, among those who do think Joe Biden is too old to continue effectively serving as president, only 14% want to see him seek a second term.

Some Democratic voters are also not afraid to voice concerns with their party's standard-bearer.

"His age is the biggest concern for me and I think that barring a better solution or a better candidate, then obviously he'd be my choice," said Todd Collins, President, UAW Local 724 in Lansing, Michigan.

Biden in April, after he launched his reelection campaign said he respects Americans taking a "hard look" at whether his age is a factor and to decide if he's fit to serve as he seeks a second term.

But despite recent calls for term limits and age limits in leadership, Americans aged 65 and up form the biggest voting bloc in most states.

And between now and 2040, the senior population is projected to swell by 44%, while the 18-to-64 population grows by just 6%. And many of those elders will have no qualms about keeping older politicians in office, according to journalist William J. Kole in his book, "The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging."

"[Biden] did more in two years as a president than I can remember any other president doing for the betterment of this country and for the betterment of the people. He seems to really be on point about that. Does he do everything that I want him to do? Of course not. But does he do a lot or did he do a lot already to help us? Yes." said Carolyn Sims, a 72-year old resident of Pennsylvania.

Sourse: abcnews.go.com

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