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A Lot Of Americans Say They Don’t Want A President Who Is Over 70. Really?

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Poll of the week

Gallup recently released new data on Americans’ willingness to vote for presidential candidates with certain traits. About 1,000 adults were asked1 whether they’d vote for a well-qualified candidate who was nominated by their party and was black, gay or had one of 10 other characteristics that are rarely or never seen in presidential nominees.

Almost all Americans said they’d be comfortable voting for a woman (94 percent), or a Catholic (95 percent), Hispanic (95 percent) or black (96 percent) candidate. But there are characteristics that big swaths of Americans said would be disqualifying — in particular being older than 70, being an atheist and being a socialist.

What types of candidates would Americans NOT vote for?

Share of respondents to an April survey who said they would not vote for a “generally well-qualified” presidential candidate from their own party if the candidate had each of the following characteristics

Democrats Independents Republicans Overall
Socialist 24% 48% 80% 51%
Atheist 28 33 56 39
Older than 70 35 37 37 37
Muslim 14 26 62 33
Younger than 40 21 28 34 28
Gay or lesbian 17 18 39 24
Evangelical Christian 27 20 6 18
Jewish 5 9 5 7
Woman 3 6 9 6
Catholic 4 6 3 5
Hispanic 3 3 8 5
Black 1 4 5 3

Source: Gallup

These results are fairly similar to what Gallup found when it previously asked this question, in 2015. There were a couple of interesting exceptions, however. Americans in 2019 said they were slightly more comfortable with a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (the share who said they’d vote for such a candidate rose from 73 percent in 2015 to 80 percent this year) or a Muslim (from 60 percent to 66 percent). Socialists, meanwhile, remained unpopular (47 percent in both 2015 and 2019).

So with Democrats obsessed with finding an “electable” candidate, does this mean that Bernie Sanders (who’s over 70 and identifies as a democratic socialist) and Joe Biden (who’s over 70) have big problems? Not so fast. So how seriously am I taking these numbers?

For the 2020 presidential election, I’m not taking them too seriously. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans said they would not back a GOP presidential candidate over the age of 70. Well … yep, President Trump was 70 on Election Day in 2016, and he’ll be 74 in 2020. I’ll bet that more than 63 percent of Republicans will vote for him — his job approval rating among GOP voters is currently in the 90s. In short, it’s important to remember that the survey question asks about categories of people, not individuals. The negative feelings that some Americans might have toward the idea of a gay or socialist presidential candidate, for example, might not apply to Pete Buttigieg or Sanders specifically.

On the other hand, these numbers could be understating some Americans’ resistance to certain characteristics. In particular, I’d view the numbers on ethnicity, race and gender skeptically. It could be true that virtually all Americans are comfortable with a black, female or Hispanic president, as the Gallup data implies. But I’d expect Americans who aren’t comfortable to be unlikely to express that view to a pollster. So I wouldn’t use this data to suggest that, say, Julian Castro wouldn’t run into electoral problems caused by racism or Elizabeth Warren because of sexism if either were the Democratic nominee.

In terms of which groups might face overt discrimation in the U.S., I’m taking these numbers more seriously. The results generally lined up with my expectations of which categories of people Americans are both somewhat wary of and willing to say so to another person.

Being a socialist is an expression of left-wing political views, so it’s natural and unsurprising that a lot of Americans, particularly Republicans, would openly oppose a socialist candidate. Similarly, it’s not surprising that some Americans wouldn’t want a president who is in her 70s as president (maybe they suspect that person wouldn’t have the energy for the job) or who is younger than 40 (a lack of experience). This is also a view that is perhaps not particularly controversial to express — columns suggesting that Biden (76) and Sanders (77) are too old to be running for president are published regularly.

What views about candidates are more controversial? Disqualifying people based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Again, I’d expect some Americans with negative attitudes toward certain religious groups, racial groups and sexual orientations not to admit that to a pollster.

Here’s where it gets interesting, however: The share of Americans who were willing to tell a pollster that they would not back an atheist, evangelical Christian, gay or Muslim presidential candidate was nonetheless fairly high. That lines up with how these four groups are treated in American culture — they face open, direct criticism based on their identities. (I don’t want to cast all parties as equal here — Republicans’ high level of opposition to an atheist or Muslim candidate jumps out.)

In terms of understanding the diversity of the Democratic Party, I’m taking these numbers very seriously. I’ve written that Biden is essentially the candidate of the un-woke Democrat (or maybe “less woke” is more accurate) and that those voters still represent a substantial bloc of the Democratic Party. This data is more evidence of that bloc’s existence. I was surprised that the share of Democrats who are uncomfortable with an evangelical Christian president was matched by about an equal share wary of a president who is an atheist or a socialist, since the Democratic Party is often characterized as becoming less religious and more liberal on economic issues. The share of Democrats who said they would not vote for a gay or Muslim candidate was also larger than I anticipated.

Other polling bites

  • 46 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina say they would vote for Biden, according to a new Post and Courier/Change Research poll, with only two of his rivals reaching double digits. Sanders (15 percent) and Kamala Harris (10 percent) are far behind the former vice president, as is the rest of the 2020 Democratic field.
  • Biden leads in Pennsylvania too, with 39 percent of the vote, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey. The only other candidate in double digits was Sanders (13 percent).
  • The Quinnipiac survey also found Biden leading Trump 53 percent to 42 percent in Pennsylvania in a hypothetical general election matchup. Sanders also bested Trump (50-43).
  • In the Republican nomination contest, Trump leads former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld 72 percent to 12 percent in New Hampshire, according to a recent Monmouth University survey.
  • 61 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, and 31 percent oppose it, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Support for same-sex marriage varied by party (75 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, compared with 44 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents). It varied by race (62 percent of white Americans, 58 percent of Hispanic Americans, 51 percent of black Americans). And it varied by religion (79 percent of those who are religiously unaffiliated, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants, 61 percent of Catholics, 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants).
  • 47 percent of registered voters rated the economy as “excellent” or “good,” according to a new Fox News poll.
  • Also from that Fox News poll: The share of voters who said Trump hasn’t been tough enough with North Korea is up to 50 percent; that number was 19 percent in September 2017.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.1 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.1 points). At this time last week, 42.4 percent approved and 52.7 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.3 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.2 points.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

Footnotes

  1. The survey was conducted April 17-30.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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