The Age Issue (again).

John Ellis
5 min readMar 6, 2024


Because I’ve covered American politics for too long, and because I come from a political family, people ask me what I think will happen come November. What I say is: “it’s going to be close,” because (a) it’s true, and (b) it enables me to not say what I really think. What I really think is that Trump is going to win.

I understand all the reasons why Trump might not win. Most important, Trump has a ceiling. He will almost certainly not get more than 47% of the vote from the national electorate, because at least 60% of suburban women won’t vote for him. Women comprise somewhere between 53% and 54% of the national electorate. Suburban women comprise ~25%.

But Trump doesn’t need 50%-plus-one of voters to win. He need only win various combinations of the 7 states (MI, WI, PA, GA, NC, NV and AZ) that will decide the outcome in the Electoral College. Right now, he would probably win at least five of those states. If Biden stumbles, badly, which he might, Trump could win all seven.

The reason Biden might stumble is his age. He’s 81. He’ll be 82 in November. In the opinion of a substantial majority of America’s voters, he is too old to “serve effectively as president.” Voters say this to pollsters over and over again. Somewhere between 60% and 85% of the national electorate believe it to be the case. What makes it so politically problematic is that it’s true.

When George H.W. Bush was president, he met with the NSA briefers at 5:45am, the CIA briefers at 6:30am, the National Security Council at 7:15am and then he started his day. George W. Bush’s morning routine was much the same. Barack Obama had dinner with his family at 6pm-ish and then went up to his office in the residence and worked from 7pm until 11pm (or midnight), most nights, when he wasn’t traveling or had no official function in the evening.

It’s an enormously difficult job and it requires extraordinary discipline and stamina to do it. It’s not Biden’s fault that he’s unable to keep that kind of schedule to stay on top of the job. He’s 81 years old. But it is Biden’s fault that he pretends he can. He can’t really do it now. Imagine what it will be like in 2 or 3 or 4 years.

The shorthand of the 2024 general election campaign is this: “If Trump is the issue, Biden wins. If Biden is the issue, Trump wins.”

This creates two problems for the Biden campaign. The first is that Biden will always be an issue (and sometimes the issue) because of his age and the widely held view (even among Democrats) that he will not be up to the job, should he be re-elected. The second is that the Biden campaign’s message — that democracy is at stake — is undercut by the first. If democracy is at stake, why is the Democratic Party nominating someone who is too old to serve effectively as president in a second term? If the stakes really are that high, wouldn’t it be essential to nominate someone whom voters see as capable of serving effectively as president in a second term? Isn’t it sort of insulting that Biden and the Democratic Party elite don’t think it matters?

The New York Times published a poll on Sunday that showed Biden losing to Trump, nationally, by a 5-point margin. That doesn’t mean much. A Fox News Poll released on the same day found Trump and Biden statistically tied. But tied nationally means that Trump is the favorite to win in the Electoral College, because the Electoral College (not by design) is almost perfectly configured to GOP advantage.

Biden won the national popular vote in 2020 by over 7 million votes. He won California by 5 million votes. He won New York by 2 million votes. In the other 48 states (and the District of Columbia), it was a tie. Had ~45,000 votes gone Trump’s way instead of Biden’s way in three “battleground” states, the outcome in the Electoral College would have been 269–269. Biden’s conceit that he beat Trump before and he’s the only one who can beat him now rests on a very thin reed. He barely beat Trump in 2020, in a race that Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama, in their prime, would have won going away.

He’s now four years older and indisputably more frail, more gaffe-prone, more (at times) confused, less commanding, however you want to put it. No one disputes this. And he was hardly LeBron James when he ran in 2020.

The aforementioned New York Times poll occasioned the fastest political-talking-point-pivot in recent memory. We went from Biden is sharp as a tack in private to Trump is more demented faster than you could read the poll itself.

Trump is more demented appears to be the new elite media/high-dollar-donor/often-quoted-in-the-press-Democratic-Party-operative talking point, one that is likely to grow more insistent as time goes on.

Alas, it’s unconvincing out there in “swing voter world.” Trump is not held to account for confusing Biden with Obama or Ukraine with Afghanistan because (1) he appears vigorous and (mostly) “all there”, and (2) his endless blathering at rallies is, at times, demented, but when it is, it’s also part of his schtick: “Yes, I’m crazy, but it drives them crazy, so I’m good crazy.”

The notion that the Biden campaign can white knuckle the age issue through to Election Day is a huge gamble, to say the least. At some point, probably during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Trump is going to call for three or four debates, mano-a-mano, no moderator.

Why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t he say: “Look, the American people need to hear what both of us have to say, unfiltered by fake news moderators. So we can pick the topics beforehand, put them up on a screen, and talk about each one for ten or fifteen minutes. We’ll give him plenty of time to prepare. I want to be fair. But I think we should have these debates in October, so they’re top of mind for voters.”

Guess what that would do? That would make Biden the issue or, more specifically, Biden’s age the issue, for a month. All those CNN and MSNBC pre-debate shows, day after day before the actual debates, would be spent hashing over how Biden might be perceived by swing voters. Too old? Beat expectations? What are the expectations? What must he do to beat them? On and on.

What discussion there would be about Trump would be some version of the new elite talking point: Trump is more demented than Biden. But we already know Trump is demented. It’s priced in, in Wall Street jargon. There’s no real news there. And the news business, after all, is news.

If you ask a swing voter what they think of Trump’s character, the answer, invariably, is “not much.” If you ask a Democrat how nervous they are when they contemplate Biden in a debate with Trump, what they say is “not much.” What they think is “God help us.”

It’s going to be close.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.