Age is just a number. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

February 20, 2024   6 mins

Is Joe Biden, at the age of 81, too old for the job? A recent NBC poll found that 62% of voters have “major concerns” about his fitness for office. And earlier this month, a report by Special Counsel Robert Hur claimed that Biden’s “memory was significantly limited”.

Biden hit back furiously. But even then managed to slip up, mixing up the presidents of Mexico and Egypt. Though Donald Trump often makes similar mistakes, his vigour on the campaign trail contrasts greatly with Biden’s. He just looks so much more energetic, and in politics appearances are everything. Ronald Reagan, who, at the age of 73, was the oldest American ever to be nominated by a major party for president, suffered under the harsh lights during  his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984. Before his second, more successful performance, he made sure to fix the lighting. But looks aside, Democrat complaints about Trump’s threat to democracy have, ironically, only emphasised the Republican leader’s vitality.

How will these concerns about Biden’s age shape the course of the election? In a new Focaldata-UnHerd poll of more than 700 people in six swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — we asked what people thought about the issue. The results were unexpected.

We found that Americans are far more concerned about Biden’s age than Trump’s. Half of respondents (49%) say they are “very concerned” about Biden, almost twice as many as for Trump (26%). Meanwhile, 38% of respondents are not concerned at all about Trump’s age — compared with just 14% for Biden.

It’s not just Republicans who are concerned about Biden’s frailty — Democrats are too. You can see below the results broken down by how Americans voted in 2020. As one would expect, Republican voters are most worried about Biden’s age, and almost half of those who did not vote for either party are “very concerned”. Morale is also low among Democrats: nearly three-quarters (74%) of those who voted for Biden now have concerns about his age, and one quarter (24%) are very concerned about him.

This could create a problem for the Democrats, who are gearing up to fight a close defensive election. Biden is defending leads of under one percent in several states — and in these swing states, every point counts. He needs as many of his 2020 supporters as possible to back him again. That 24% of those who voted for Biden last time are now “very concerned” about his age is a bad omen for his campaign.

Though if we look in more depth at the figures, we can see that some Americans care more about his age than others: older people, white people, and men tend to be more concerned, while black respondents are likely to be less so.

However, just because voters are worried about Biden’s age, doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. It’s often difficult to tease out a voter’s underlying motivations, since concern about one issue is rarely enough to switch someone’s vote in the polling booth — especially in such a polarised political climate as America.

That said, if voters were to become more concerned about Biden’s age, how would that effect the election? Some Democrats will remain loyal no matter what — their commitment to, let’s say, climate change will outweigh their unease about Biden’s competency. Others will have already made up their minds to desert, perhaps because of their experience of rising prices under his presidency. But some voters are on the fence, open to persuasion by further evidence of Biden’s frailty or aggressive Republican messaging. The way to discover the underlying motivations of voters is to study how many different factors relate, using a regression model. As you can see from the results below, concern about Biden’s age is an important factor, but it’s far from the most important.

One of the clever things about regression models is that you can use them to run experiments. We wanted to work out what would happen to the defection rate as Democratic voters grew more concerned about Biden’s age. And as you can see from the blue points on the graph below, our experiment had surprising results. As Democrat concern for Biden’s age increases, the proportion of defectors goes up — but only slightly. Even if 90% of 2020 Democrat voters were to increase their concern for Biden — something that would only happen after a truly shocking gaffe — we would still only expect 2% more people to consider defection than do already.

Biden’s record on the economy and cost-of-living crisis will be the key determinant come election day — not his age.

When we analysed Democrat concern over the cost-of-living crisis rather than Biden’s age, the results looked very different. As you can see from the orange points on the graph below, shifting opinions on the cost-of-living crisis had a far greater impact on defections. If Biden wants to win the hearts of swing voters, it is the economic issue he ought to address — even though Republicans will do their best to distract him with jibes about his age.

Either way, it’s a little late now for the Democratic party to have second thoughts about Biden. Registration for the nomination has closed in most states, and so it would be impossible for a challenger to beat him in the primaries. The only possibility would be for Biden to stand aside, which he appears to have no intention of doing. The possibility of a genuinely brokered convention would be astonishing.

But would it help the Democrats if Biden stood down? And would more youthful candidates have an advantage? In the same swing state polls, we asked if people would vote differently if one of two Democratic “rising stars”, Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, or Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, stood against Trump. As we can see from the results on the sanky diagram below, which plots out the various scenarios for each candidate vs. Trump, there is very little movement. It appears that many people are not familiar with either Newsom or Whitmer. Each is an unknown quantity, and still has an opportunity to redefine themselves for the American public.

When we look at respondents who do recognise each candidate, the Democratic and Republican voting blocs are almost unchanged compared to a Biden v. Trump run. Whitmer outperforms Newsom, but that is only because she is governor in Michigan, one of the six states polled here, and does extremely well there. Newsom and Whitmer do convince a handful of those who say they “don’t know” in a Biden v. Trump election — but the figures are close to the margin of error for a poll of this size.

Looking at the state-by-state results below, we can see Biden’s relative strength among non-white voter groups. Newsom and Whitmer underperform Biden in the heavily non-white states of Arizona and Georgia, and Whitmer fairs similarly poorly in Nevada, where Newsom is helped by being governor of a neighbouring state. And indeed, Biden has long been popular among non-white voters, as he was perceived to be supportive of Barack Obama while vice president.

What we can draw from all this is that, while Biden’s age is a real concern, it seems not the sole decisive factor in the 2024 election than much public commentary suggests. It may make for a less sensational headline, but the current President’s record on the economy and cost-of-living crisis will be the key determinant come election day — not his age. And should he decide to stand down, there may not be enough time to transform either Whitmer or Newsom into a strong, alternative presidential candidate capable of beating Donald Trump and so perhaps all eyes should rest on our next analysis — that of Kamala Harris — the most likely candidate by far to succeed the President, should he step down.

James Kanagasooriam is Chief Research Officer at Focaldata. James Alster is a Senior Research Analyst at Focaldata.