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Do Voters Care about the Age of their Elected Representatives?

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Abstract

On average, members of Congress are significantly older than the constituents they represent, while young people remain under-represented in elected office. Is this because people prefer older politicians and fail to see young people as viable candidates? Drawing on survey and experimental evidence, we explore how the age of a politician affects both candidate evaluations and incumbent approval. We find that people tend to see younger candidates as less experienced, less qualified, and less conservative than older candidates. However, we find few differences in people’s willingness to support a younger candidate than an older candidate. In fact, when looking at patterns of approval in Congress, people report more negative ratings of older members of Congress rather than younger ones. The over-representation of older voices in Washington likely reflects structural factors like incumbency that favor the success of older politicians, rather than the demands of the electorate.

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Notes

  1. The average representative in the 117th Congress is 58.4 years old, while the average senator approaches retirement age at 64.3 years old (Manning, 2021).

  2. The poll was sponsored by NBC News/Wall Street Journal by telephone February 14–17, 2020 with a sample of 970 respondents.

  3. In cross-sectional surveys, Sevi (2021) finds partial evidence that constituents prefer politicians closer to themselves in age.

  4. The survey was conducted at Harvard University March 8–20, 2019 with a sample of 3022 18 to 29-year-olds.

  5. The survey is from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, conducted June 21 – July 9, 2018.

  6. Replication data is accessible at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/R2EO73.

  7. Participants in the CES are recruited by YouGov and enter the sample using a matched random sampling approach. The pre-election survey was fielded September 29-November 2, 2020.

  8. In mentioning both the age of the representative and his age relative the rest of the chamber, we may prime two distinct aspects of how people might think about age. While these two mentions of age echo how candidate age is often described in media accounts, we will not be able to know for sure if both kinds of information are equally important for how people evaluate candidates.

  9. While age limits restrict those under age 25 from seeking a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, only three states hold the same restriction for seeking a seat in the lower house of the state legislature.

  10. We do not apply survey weights in our analysis.

  11. We use two-tailed t-tests as we wish to consider whether a candidate’s age may be a virtue or a flaw in the eyes of the electorate.

  12. If we consider only the subset of respondents who were validated voters in 2020, the penalty associated with the older candidate is statistically significant, but we find no differences in ratings of the younger candidate versus the middle-aged one. This suggests that the underrepresentation of younger candidates is not due to the biases of the voting electorate relative the pool of eligible voters.

  13. We include these demographic predictors to account for one source of heterogeneity in people’s approval of their representative, but do not have theoretical expectations for these indicators.

  14. Because approval is measured on a four-point scale, we use a multilevel ordered logit approach. Random effects are associated with district-years. In our first model, we include random effects associated with the intercept and respondent ideology and a covariance term between the two. The second model adds a random effect associated with respondent age, and the associated covariance terms. We apply survey weights. Our main findings are robust to an alternate specification that adds fixed effects for survey years.

  15. Predicted probabilities for the control variables are based on the second model in Table 1.

  16. We considered the possibility that the effects of legislator age are conditional on both respondent age and shared partisanship, as shown in the supplemental appendix. We find that young people tend to penalize co-partisan lawmakers more for their advanced age than out-party representatives, while older respondents are more likely to penalize out-party lawmakers for their age.

  17. Asian American lawmakers have a predicted probability of approval that is about two points higher than that of white lawmakers.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Jeffrey Koch for his comments and suggestions on this paper.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Wolak.

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Roberts, D.C., Wolak, J. Do Voters Care about the Age of their Elected Representatives?. Polit Behav 45, 1959–1978 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-022-09802-5

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