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Separated by just three-and-a-half years in age, President Joe Biden, 81, and former President Donald Trump, 77, are at similar stages in life. They’re both grandfathers in their golden years who qualified for Social Security and senior discounts long ago.
However, their narrow age gap may as well be a chasm to American voters, who are far more concerned with Biden’s age than Trump’s, polls have shown.
The vast majority of U.S. adults, 86%, said Biden is too long in the tooth to serve another term, compared to 62% who said the same for Trump, according to a Feb. 11 ABC News/Ipsos poll.
Similarly, 68% of voters said Biden was too advanced in age, while 48% said the same of Trump, according to a Feb. 12 Morning Consult poll.
This profound difference in opinion over the age of the likely 2024 presidential candidates prompts the question: What makes a candidate “too old?”
This question veers into uncharted territory as recent major party candidates have been significantly younger. No matter who is elected this time, both Biden and Trump would be the oldest presidents to ever occupy the White House by 2028.
But a number of factors — including appearance, speech patterns and loyalty — likely play into voters’ age-related concerns, according to political scientists and public opinion experts.
Simply put, there is a substantial difference in the way Biden and Trump present themselves, which can affect public perception, Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University who researches campaigns, told McClatchy News.
Biden “just looks old, and Trump doesn’t,” Stromer-Galley, author of “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age,” said.
“Trump looks more healthy, robust,” she said. “Biden looks gaunt.”
When walking around, Biden also displays a stiffened gait as a result of “wear and tear” on his spine, according to a 2023 physician’s report.
There have been several instances where he publicly stumbled — including when he fell down the stairs to Air Force One in September.
These visuals have likely contributed to a souring public perception regarding his age, Robert Shapiro, a professor of American politics at Columbia University, told McClatchy News.
There is also a major difference between the way the two candidates speak at public events, multiple experts said.
Biden, who has a stutter, often speaks in a whisper, sometimes tripping over his words, Stromer-Galley said.
“The halting and the pauses and the stumbling over words can be misread or read as cognitive decline, even if that’s not necessarily what’s actually happening for him,” she said.
Recently, he’s also made some prominent gaffes, including by confusing the presidents of Egypt and Mexico in a speech defending his mental capacity.
Trump has also made some notable errors recently — including by mixing up Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi — but his speaking style tends to help paper over his mistakes, Stromer-Galley said.
While speaking at rallies, often off the cuff and for over an hour, Trump “comes across as more vigorous and energetic even though his verbal flubs are far more frequent,” Herb Asher, an emeritus professor of political science at the Ohio State University, told McClatchy News.
“Trump is much more fluid in the way he speaks,” Stromer-Galley said. “If he is losing words, he’s really good at hiding that. And he just rolls along, and so he doesn’t have the same disfluency.”
During campaign events, he’s also seen by some as an entertainer, potentially setting up a different standard to be judged by, Asher said.
Additionally, Trump’s base of support — according to multiple polls — shows more loyalty to him than Biden’s base, which could color the way both candidates’ ages are viewed.
“There are big partisan differences in these polls and Trump benefits from positive Republican perceptions more than Biden from less positive Democratic perceptions and from Independents,” Shapiro said.
Because of their steadfast allegiance to Trump, his core supporters may be more willing to overlook any gaffes or signs of decline, Stromer-Galley said. Democrats, on the other hand, may be less forgiving towards Biden.
And, Biden’s low approval ratings more generally may also contribute to more specific perceptions about his age, Shapiro said.
It’s also worth noting, Stromer-Galley said, that Trump has been running on Biden’s age since 2020, meaning the issue has been in the public sphere for longer, potentially making it more salient to voters.
Adding fuel to the fire is the Hur report, released on Feb. 5, which was the culmination of Special Counsel Robert Hur’s investigation into Biden’s handling of classified documents.
Though the report did not charge the president with a crime — as Trump was — it made several statements about the president’s advanced age and mental capacity.
“It doesn’t help Biden’s case — to say the least — when you have official government documents basically declaring that he is an elderly gentleman with mental capacity issues,” Stromer-Galley said.
While the report may not be enough to sway voters, when added to existing concerns, it may move the needle, she said.
“It’s a combination,” she said, “that I think that has the public saying, ‘yeah, maybe he’s too old.’”