2020 February 27
In Partisan Bias in Factual Beliefs about Politics, my co-authors and I examined factual matters about which Democrats and Republicans seem to hold different beliefs. Many of the matters that we examined were about the economy or with war: for example, Democrats and Republicans seem to differ systematically with respect to their beliefs about the unemployment rate and about the number of Americans who have been killed in Afghanistan. But we asked questions about other matters as well. And in our first experiment, fielded in 2008, we asked respondents to state their beliefs about John McCain’s age.
Several readers have objected to the McCain question. Their claim is that McCain’s age was not a salient political matter and that there is no reason to think that ordinary Democrats and Republicans were divided on this point.
There are two points to make in response. First, even if the critics were right, our analyses would not be much affected. Second, the critics are mistaken: McCain’s age was a salient point in the 2008 election.
Consider the first point. The McCain question is just one of 21 questions that we analyze; our conclusions scarcely depend on it, or on data from any single question. In addition, if the criticism were correct—if partisans didn’t hold different beliefs about McCain’s age—the effect should be to weaken the effect of our treatment. To see this point, recall that, in our article, we examine whether payments for correct answers reduce the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans. But if there is no partisan gap under ordinary circumstances, payments like ours can have no effect. The implication is that estimates of our treatment effect will be smaller.
Now consider the second point: the claim that McCain’s age was not a salient issue in the 2008 election. This claim is simply a mistake. Note, to begin, that Democrats and Republicans did differ systematically in their beliefs about McCain’s age: see page 532 of our article. But the more general point is that, in the electorate at large, McCain’s age was a significant issue.
On the eve of the 2008 election, McCain was 72 years old. He was the oldest non-incumbent ever to win a major-party nomination. He had been a prisoner of war for six years, and he had been tortured repeatedly during that time; the torture left him with lifelong disabilities. He had also survived four bouts with melanoma. If he had been elected and re-elected—and if he had survived two terms of office—he would have been 80 years old by the time that he left the White House. And in 2008, Americans took note:
On February 4, a Newsweek column asked How Old Is Too Old?
On April 3 of that year, Huffington Post published Poll: McCain’s Age Problem. It reviewed an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll which found that the number of people worried about supporting a candidate as old as McCain exceeded the number who had reservations about supporting a black or female candidate.
On May 21, the Pew Research Center published McCain’s Age Problem. Pew had found that 26% of Americans deemed McCain “too old to be president,” and that the percentage rose to 32% when they learned that he was 71 years old. (He was about to turn 72.)
On May 22 of that year, Politico published McCain’s Age Is a Legitimate Issue.
On July 9, Gallup published McCain’s Age Seen as More of a Problem than Obama’s Race. It reported a poll indicating that 23% of Americans (including 11% of Republicans and 21% of Americans above 65) thought that McCain’s age would make him a “less effective president.”
On August 15, McClatchyDC—the political arm of the McClatchy Company, the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country—published Some Wonder if McCain’s Too Old and Wrinkly to Be President.
On October 6, the Guardian reported that McCain’s Temper and Age Become Focus of Democrats’ Ads.
In late October, on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Sam Donaldson and George Will criticized McCain’s rhetorical about-face on the state of the economy, which they found inexplicable. Donaldson implied that McCain may have been suffering from senility, saying that “His talking points have gotten all mixed up. And I think the question of age is back on the table.”
In The Obama Victory, Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson (2010) found McCain’s age so important that they devoted an entire chapter to its role in the 2008 election. Among much else, they reported results from a search of print, broadcast, and cable news transcripts. It revealed that McCain’s name was tied to his age 1,390 times in the five months leading up to the election. (See page 57 of their book.)
The weight of the evidence is clear: McCain’s age was a salient issue in the 2008 election.