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.