Next week US voters will choose between the two oldest presidential candidates in history —Joe Biden at 77 or Donald Trump at 74.
In 2016, Trump made history as the oldest person to assume office at 70 years old.
If Joe Biden is elected, he’ll break that record at age 78.
While American electors don’t have much choice this year, it’s already being speculated that the 2024 election could usher in a younger generation of political candidates.
We already saw the beginnings of this younger energy this year, when Democrats Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard ran in the Democratic primary aged in their late 30s.
If Joe Biden is elected in 2020 but opts not to run for a second term, 31-year-old Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often called AOC) is touted as another 2024 candidate.
Born on October 13, 1989, she would be 34 years old for all but three weeks of the 2024 presidential race, and would have just turned 35 by election day.
But is that too young? How young is too young to run for president of the United States, and when does the rule kick in?
The over 35 rule
Article II of the US Constitution says candidates must be 35 years old to take office as president.
To be a senator you have to be 30, and to be a member of the House of Representatives you must be 25.
Those rules haven’t changed for over 200 years — they were written into the Constitution in 1787, and came into effect in 1789.
Does the age rule apply from election day, or inauguration day?
It applies on inauguration day — which these days is usually January 20, in the year following the election.
That means a candidate can campaign in a primary race, be nominated as their party’s candidate, and even be elected to the presidency at 34 years old — as long as they’ll be 35 by the date they take office.
Back in the 1972 election, one virtually unknown Delawarean senator-elect reached this age minimum by the tightest of margins.
Joe Biden was 29 when he was elected, and had just turned 30 by the time he was sworn in.
If Ocasio-Cortez did run for president in 2024 and won, she’d be 35 years and 3 months old on January 20, 2025.
Who was the youngest president?
The youngest person to assume the presidency was Theodore Roosevelt, who got the job aged 42 when president William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
John F Kennedy remains the youngest person elected as president, at 43 years old on inauguration day 1961.
So why 35?
Given US citizens can vote at 18 years old, what’s so special about 35?
In Australia, for instance, the minimum age to stand at any level of government is 18.
That’s the rule in other democracies, like Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and many European nations.
The founding fathers mostly agreed age minimums were a good idea
During the drafting of the constitution, delegates to the 1787 US Constitutional Convention didn’t discuss the presidential age limit, but did have a brief back-and-forth about the proposed age minimum in the House.
Their arguments basically boiled down to (1) your opinions get more sophisticated as you get older and (2) we need our political representatives to have time to establish some stature and standing in the community.
George Mason — who ultimately refused to sign the Constitution — said his own personal opinions at age 21 “were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures”.
Founding father James Wilson didn’t agree, saying an age minimum would “damp the efforts of genius, and of laudable ambition”, citing respected politicians in the UK who had attained office in their early 20s.
James Madison later justified requiring senators to be older than House members, saying “senatorial trust” required a “greater extent of information and stability of character” that developed with age.
Funnily enough, many of the constitutional drafters weren’t themselves 35 when they wrote the Constitution — more than a dozen of the delegates were under 35, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
It may have been to avoid creating family dynasties
One of the major reasons Americans wanted to cut their ties with Great Britain was to get rid of the monarchy.
The presidential age minimum may therefore have been an attempt to avoid creating a monarch-like succession of power from parent to child.
Back in the 18th century, it was extremely unlikely a president’s children would have turned 35 by the time he left office after one or two terms.
It may have worked: while there have been four instances where one family produced multiple presidents, there has never been a father whose son immediately replaced him as the subsequent president.
Has the rule ever been challenged?
There have been a few senators and House representatives over the years who sneaked in slightly before reaching the requisite age, seemingly without consequences.
Parties have attempted to get out of age rules in various ways. In 1934, 29-year-old senator-elect Rush Holt was forced to wait six months, until his 30th birthday, before being sworn in as a senator.
In 2012, 27-year-old Californian Peta Lindsay ran as a presidential candidate for a minor party, but was subsequently removed from the certified list of candidates.
She challenged the decision, arguing while she agreed she wasn’t constitutionally eligible to be president, it was a violation of her constitutional rights to prevent her from running for the office at all.
A federal appeals court rejected this, arguing to do otherwise would mean “anyone, regardless of age, citizenship or any other constitutional ineligibility would be entitled to clutter and confuse our electoral ballot”.
Could the US change the rule?
Constitutional amendment in the US is a big deal. It requires both the House and the Senate to pass the amendment’s wording at a two-thirds majority, and then three-quarters of the states to ratify it.
Changing the constitution therefore requires a huge groundswell of public pressure and political advocacy before it’s even contemplated.
It’s clear that in 2020, voters have other compelling priorities to deal with, and there’s no real public push to do anything about the age minimums.
Perhaps this will change if a hugely popular underage candidate emerges in the future.
In fact, given this year’s suite of older candidates, some are wondering whether there should be an upper age cap on candidacy — preventing people who are ‘too old’ from running.
What are the other rules?
The other requirements in the Constitution are that the candidate must be:
- A natural born citizen, and
- A US resident for at least 14 years
US courts have generally interpreted the ‘natural born’ wording to mean a president must have been born in the United States, but have never directly heard a challenge to a presidential candidate’s eligibility.