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Christopher Wilde
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Sunday, May 11, 2008

McCain's Big Problem

Bob Dole Speaking at Dickson College

By Christopher Wilde

The year was 1996 Bob Dole was running for President against incumbent Bill Clinton, and I was working as a lowly employee of a major property conglomerate here in Salt Lake City.  Still in college, but revving up to work in talk radio, politics was on my mind.  I’d only lived in Salt Lake City for three years and it was much more conservative than my native East Coast so I was surprised at what I discovered.


In one of the company’s holdings there is a large downtown condominium then filled with affluent, conservative, seniors and a few octogenarians.  It started with overheard conversations and ended with me engaging in those conversations (for the record it’s never good while on job to engage the customer in political discourse).


“Bob Dole? He’s too old.”

“I’m three years younger than him and I couldn’t imagine running the country.”

“He’ll be senile in two years.”

“He’ll die in office.”

“What choice do I have?”

Again and again I heard various versions of these comments.  Those thoughts were on their minds and out of their mouth’s trying to take hold and influence my then twenty-something brain.


Among his peers it seemed Bob Dole was deeply stereotyped by his age.


John McCain pumps his fists

Age discrimination is one of the last forms still recklessly used by comedians.  There is very little advocacy to stop age discrimination when it appears in the media and zero public prohibition against openly expressing such feelings.  Regular viewers of David Letterman’s show know he’s been poking fun at John McCain’s age since before the Senator won the nomination.  Writers for David Letterman should look at their jokes, substitute old for black, Obama for McCain, and see if it’s still suitable for national television.


Bob Dole was the oldest man to ever seek a first term as President and the issue of age was so divisive Herbert L. Abrams and Richard Brody made a twenty-five page study of the issue two years later in Political Science Quarterly, Bob Dole's Age and Health in the 1996 Election: Did the Media Let Us Down?


Therein they found that,

“Collectively the nation’s three major newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angles Times) published more stories on Dole’s age and health than did magazine and television sources in 1996 and 1995.” –page 5

Though they go on to say that the coverage was light and not substantive (suggesting it should have been), it is clear age was an issue then and it will be now with John McCain.


Despite Bob Dole’s health problems, and there was some cause for concern, Bob Dole is still up and kicking, and pulling laughs out of college students at MSU.  As I imagine he would probably like to say,  'it turns out those who had fears about Bob Dole's age were wrong about Bob Dole.' 


Abram and Brody state:

Most Americans expressed the belief that Dole's age would not much affect his performance as president one way or the other. But those who believed that his age was relevant were much more likely to think of it as a handicap than as a benefit.” –page 7.


It was on American’s minds then, and it’s on their minds now.  There is only so much room in someone’s mind when they are trying to perform cognitive functions.  For that reason I will submit that the impact on Bob Dole’s failure to win goes much deeper than the Abram/Brody study strives to uncover.  Questions about age and fitness circling through the head's of voters will powerfully affect their decisions at the polls.

Read the April/May issue of Scientific American Mind an article entitled, The Social Psychology of Success, it's worth the $4.95. In that article the joint authors discuss how the stereotypes we hold for ourselves affect our abilities to perform on tests.  As a woman if you believe your gender isn’t good at math, you are more likely to do poorly on a math test.  The converse is true, if you believe women are better at math, as a woman you are more likely to perform better.  The cause of this failure to perform is believed to be a factor called enhanced cognitive load.  When you fill up your mind with negative ideas those ideas inhibit your ability to do the complex reasoning needed to do the math.


That would suggest that John McCain and Barack Obama are on a level playing field when it comes to stereotypes and discrimination, however even racists know it’s by-and-large socially unacceptable to say so and no such mores exist when it comes to age discrimination.


The real problem for John McCain can be found in the following Abram/Brody finding:

“There was no ambiguity in the relationship of the respondent's own age to his or her perception of the effect of Dole's age if he were elected. Across the entire election, the older the voter, the more likely he was to believe that Dole's age would be an obstacle.” –page 9.


By and large John McCain can not reach younger voters, and certainly not with the level of intoxicating charisma exuded by Barack Obama.  Compared to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama has been enormously successful in rallying students across collage campuses.  These students are sure to feel empowered by Barack Obama’s impending victory in the democratic primary.  If they use that power to campaign collectively by motivating their peers and everyone else under thirty-five they stand to be a major weapon of mass destruction against the Republican machine.

 John McCain wags his finger

Here at my favorite coffee shop (where I am writing this article) I spoke to a fifty-five year old woman and her mother, seventy-seven while they drank coffee on Mother’s day. 

Describing themselves as “flaming-conservatives” the daughter (unprompted) said it best, “If you are old and in good health you won’t see it (McCain’s age) as a problem, but if you are old and in bad health you will.”


According to the Pew Research Center, Democrats hold a favorable lead over Republicans when it comes to voters between the ages of  50-65+.  If those Americans believe that John McCain’s age is even a significant issue I don’t believe he has a chance of winning regardless of anything he says or does.



Model Minority said...

The Article is 4.95.

But you clearly have it.

Whats up with that LAINK?

enhanced cognitive load.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid you're being overly optimistic here. The age argument looks rather silly when McCain trots out his mother to campaign for him.

Remember Dole lost because of his stupid "bridge to the past" comment and because he was running against a popular incumbent. When Reagan was re-elected in a landslide, he was slightly older than McCain is now. And there are more elderly voters now than in 1984.