Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is John McCain Too Old To Be President?

Like many people outside the United States, I've been following this year's presidential race with considerable interest. The 2008 election is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating and important in history. I'll be sharing my perspective of some of the contest's key issues from a mathematical point of view in a series of pieces here up to Election Day on November 4th. Feel free to leave your own thoughts and comments!

One of the biggest points of debate so far in this election has been the issue of age - the Republican candidate John McCain is 72 years old; a victory in November would make him the oldest man ever elected to the office of President of the United States.

Some commentators argue that McCain is too old to be running for President. They point to actuarial tables which suggest that a 72-year American male has a 1 in 3 chance of dying in the next 8 years (the period that McCain would serve as President were he to be re-elected). The same tables suggest he has a 1 in 7 chance of dying before finishing a single term in office.

But the argument doesn't quite add up. For one thing, actuarial tables are used to estimate the average lifetime of large groups of people, but are lousy at foretelling how long any one person in particular might live.

For another, McCain is hardly an average 72 year old - after all, most septuagenarians don't have full-time, top-level political careers.

In fact, McCain's longevity prospects look pretty good. His mother, Roberta, is still active at 96, as is his aunt of the same age (Roberta's twin sister). His maternal grandfather, Archibald Wright, also lived well into his nineties.

A final note: Modern presidential candidates (from the 1930s on) appear on the whole to have above-average lifespans. Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both lived to 93, while Herbert Hoover also reached his 90th birthday and Harry Truman lived to 88. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush are both still active at 84.

Presidential runners-up fare well too: the 1972 Democrat nominee George McGovern is 86, while the party's 1984 nominee Walter Mondale celebrated his 80th birthday this year. The 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole is now 85, while the Republicans' 1964 candidate Barry Goldwater lived to 89. The longevity prize, however, goes to the Republican's 1936 candidate, Alf Landon, who died a month after his 100th birthday in 1987.

In conclusion: There may be all kinds of reasons to oppose a McCain victory in November, but age isn't one of them.


Anonymous said...

Your conclusion is flawed, my good fellow.

McCain may not be too old to survive the next 8 years, but that doesn't mean he isn't too old to be president.

With age comes wisdom, but also obstinacy. As one example, he will not read your piece unless someone prints it out for him. He does not know how to use a computer or send e-mail and he refuses to learn.

And while actuarial tables may not be good predictors of longevity, neither are past presidents. Even family history is dodgy as he has had recurrent invasive melanoma, and his body was seriously damaged by beatings and malnutrition during his six years of captivity in the Hanoi Hilton.

Anonymous said...

He's 72 years old and has had skin cancer 4 times. He's visibly feeble. This isn't about pure numerical age, or even about the physical question of whether he will actually DIE in the next eight years.

We have to be honest with ourselves. We need a leader with peak abilities, both physical and mental. We want a leader who will stay in charge, not someone who will be co-opted by scheming underlings in moments of weakness or inability. This is already happening to McCain, well before the election. Palin and others are already trying to subvert his campaign into something darker than he would have it be.

If he were to be elected it would inevitably become much, much worse. He's not such a fighter or champion anymore, at least not the one he lauds himself to be. Looking deeper into his past--graduated 894th in his class of 899, crashed four airplanes while NOT in combat--it becomes clear that he never really was.

Paulene Angela said...

Wow, you have picked a hot topic Daniel ... If you look at his family track record, he'll be fine. There are many a 40+ that look worn out too.
He must have a huge amount of knowledge to tap into and the fact that he has suffered during war means he will not dive into trouble. Why is the whole world and his dog against Palin? her track record in Alaska is quite impressive, who would say no to sharing taxes out amount the community members. Well there is the troopergate saga, remember there is always two sides to a story and we are only hearing one, I have found the press very bias. Unfortunately we are working semi-blind with Obama, there's no record only an image which looks attractive. Sorry Daniel I have no calculations for you.

Anonymous said...

He may be old and not physical able to be president but I feel he is mentally ready to take on the war effort. I think Obama will make a bigger mistake with the war if he is elected so I am putting my vote in for McCain. All I want is experience not physical ability. BUT if he were to die Palin for pres would be awful!

Anonymous said...

Dear DR,

Quiet a politically bias look at the Honorable John McCain. He is far from "feeble" and is actually quite physically fit considering the damage suffered to his body during his years at the Hanoi Hilton. I suspect his rival wouldn't be all that much better if he were to have "served" his country in uniform.

As for his Naval Academy shenanigans, its well documented that he didn't put an effort into that educational opportunity provided from the expectations of a McCain. The "honor code" was the highest priority ... something his opponent could have learned a bit about before selecting his friends (Bill Ayers, Rev. Wright, Tony Resco).

I think what is most offensive is your criticism of his Navy service as a pilot -- get the facts before posting.


We have had numerous questions about this widely circulated claim. Some say McCain "lost" five planes, others that he "crashed" five planes. All offer this alleged "fact" as evidence that he was a bad pilot. All are incorrect.

McCain did lose two Navy aircraft while piloting them, both due to engine failure. A third was destroyed on the deck of the carrier USS Forrestal when a missile fired accidentally from another plane hit either the plane next to McCain's or, less likely, his own aircraft, triggering a disastrous fire that killed 134 sailors and nearly killed McCain. A fourth plane was lost when he was shot down over North Vietnam on a bombing mission over Hanoi. There's no evidence that any of the four destroyed planes were lost to pilot error.

A fifth alleged "crash" turns out to be a misinterpretation of a flight accident that did not result in the loss of the aircraft. McCain admitted to causing that incident through "daredevil clowning" but returned safely.

Alberto said...

Any potential loss must also be weighted for the consequences. A penny ante game may be played with abandon. Russian roulette under any circumstances is insane.

People accordingly weight their opinion of McCain's life expectancy against his choice of successor. Although she draws adoring crowds within the fundamentalist wing of the Republican party, many people (even within her own party) find the prospect of a Palin presidency appalling. A person of that opinion rightly finds almost any increased risk of death unacceptable. Polls show the majority of people have concluded that McCain's choice of a running mate was impetuous and has hurt him.

The voters will decide on Nov. 4.

Anonymous said...

we're not talking about political concerns but abot age.Daniel is right here.

Anonymous said...

I am an actuary - a member of the society of actuaries in the US. Randomly selected he would have a 22% chance of living thru his first 4 years and roughly a 33% of making it thru all 8. It is fair to say there is reason to adjust favorably for the longevity of his family members. There is also reason to reduce because of his 4 instances of skin cancer. But what is concerning are two things: his age is not ideal for being at the top of his game - he does not have the faculties of a younger man and these will certainly diminish significantly over the next 8 years; but what is worse is he has selected something who does not appear to be ready to lead the US.

So while you are right to the extent that he will likely live thru his presidency you are missing the key concern about his age - is he all there :) And has he positioned the US in case he doesnt make it thru his term. The analysis of age has more to do with whether he is fit to run the US and if he dies has he positioned a qualified person to take over. Keep in mind that one could argue that Obama is no more qualified than Palin but the US picked him not her.

Anonymous said...

Nice to have a mathematical perspective on the elections.