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Why Biden's Age Has Become a Bigger Deal Than Trump's

Credit - Photo Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME (Source Photos: Getty Images)

Joe Biden is less than four years older than Donald Trump. When Biden became the oldest President to ever be sworn in back in 2021, it was Trump’s record he was breaking. Now, the two men once again appear set to be the oldest pair of major party nominees in history.

And yet, polls show voters far more worried about whether the 81-year-old President could handle another four years in the White House than his 77-year-old predecessor, a concern that exploded into the forefront this week after a report alleged Biden exhibited multiple memory lapses. Conversations with voters, political strategists and others suggest that those sentiments are about more than Biden being older than Trump; it’s how the behavior and appearance of the two men, but Biden in particular, has changed in recent years.

“Look at everything that's gone on in the last three years with that dude,” says Travis Aslin, an Iowa independent who says he used to support Democrats but can’t bring himself to vote for Biden. “The word salad, the stumbling, you know, standing on a stage and looking like—honest to God, he looks like my grandfather did. My grandfather had Alzheimer's.”

With the oldest presidential matchup in American history upon us, issues of health and competency are likely to come up again and again over the next nine months. And both campaigns will be working to make their opponent seem doddy, senile, and infirm, and their own guy the picture of vim and vigor.

Perhaps the most damaging ammunition in that fight came on Thursday in a report on an investigation into Biden’s handling of classified documents. Special Counsel Robert Hur, a Republican and former Trump appointee, said he wasn’t bringing charges against Biden, but alleged the President couldn’t remember basic facts and described him as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” The Trump campaign quickly put out a statement referring to Biden as “senile.” The President held a last-minute news conference where he insisted "My memory is fine,” and fumed at Hur’s accusations.

The latest attack on Biden’s mental acuity follows recent efforts by Biden’s team to turn the tables on Trump, who has had his own share of flubs. A new ad from the Biden camp highlights how Trump recently confused Nikki Haley, his last remaining opponent for the GOP nomination, with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Both Haley and Biden have used recent Trump mix-ups to hammer the former President on his competency; the Biden ad even features a clip of Haley saying, “He’s not what he was in 2016. He has declined.” Then, the video pivots to Trump’s other stumbles, including his claims that he won all 50 states (he didn’t) and that you need voter ID to buy a loaf of bread (you don’t).

“President Trump continues to dominate in poll after poll, both in the primary and general elections,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung wrote in a statement to TIME. “There is no other candidate in history who has the energy and stamina President Trump has, and he will out-work and out-pace Joe Biden to save America.”

Some of Biden’s public stumbles have arguably been worse than Trump’s. In 2022, he asked whether a congresswoman who had recently died in a car accident was at a White House event. Last year, he referred to the war in Ukraine as the war in Iraq. At a campaign event in Las Vegas this month, Biden suggested he recently met with former French President François Mitterrand, who died almost thirty years ago, before quickly correcting himself. Later, he confused German Chancellor Angela Merkel with the late Helmut Kohl. On Thursday, he mixed up the Mexican and Egyptian presidents.

But while Trump has a habit of bulldozing through outlandish remarks at every rally he holds, the frequency of his public appearances may lessen the impact in the minds of voters of any of those statements. Meanwhile, some voters have the impression that Biden is dodging the public.

“When you look at access and transparency to the public, you do see a difference,” says Scott Strunc, a Republican small-business owner from Omaha who backed Trump in 2020 but says he won’t vote for him again. “There's not a hesitancy by Trump, but there seems to be a protection of President Biden.”

Biden’s decision to speak with reporters Thursday to respond to Hur’s report highlighted how rarely he participates in such encounters. He has had fewer press conferences and sit-down interviews than his predecessors, and opted to skip the traditional Super Bowl interview this weekend. While he is participating in rallies and fundraisers, he is also taking the advice of advisers who have urged him to do more informal campaign stops, which they believe play to his strengths as a retail politician and help him to appear more youthful. Joining the president on a recent ride in his motorcade, one supporter said he was surprised to find that Biden seemed “very sharp.” And his team is focused on contrasting Trump and Biden on issues besides age and acuity.

“There are big differences between the President and Donald Trump, and that's ultimately what Americans will be voting on in November,” wrote campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt in a statement to TIME. “President Biden was the first president to walk a picket line, and Donald Trump wants to give even more tax cuts to his Park Avenue friends.  Biden will restore Roe, and Trump would ban abortion nationally. President Biden will protect our democracy, and Donald Trump is an election denier."

Still, a recent Gallup survey indicated that fewer than a third of Americans would be willing to vote for an otherwise qualified nominee of their party over eighty years old. A Reuters/Ipsos poll   found that three quarters of Americans, including more than half of Democrats, think Biden is too old to work in government, with only half of voters and a third of Republicans saying the same thing about Trump. A January NBC poll found nearly identical numbers saying they had  concerns about Biden’s health, while less than half of respondents said the same thing about Trump.

A health summary released by Biden’s physician early last year described him as “healthy,” “vigorous,” and “fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.” Trump, known for often subsisting on McDonalds and Coca-Cola, is no spring chicken, though his doctor released a note in November indicating his test results were normal, he had lost weight, and “his cognitive exams were exceptional.”

One Democratic strategist blamed a media double standard for the disproportionate concern about Biden’s age compared to Trump’s. “But you peel back the layers a little bit more and it's a little bit more complicated,” added the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak more freely about the leader of his party. “As someone who's watched him age over the years, it’s basically the same guy I've been watching for years, but he's just—his gait is so stiff. It just sometimes gives Republicans, the RNC, a lot to talk about.”

Beverly Hallberg, who provides media coaching to Republicans as president of District Media Group, says Biden has long drawn attention for his occasional gaffes. When he became Vice President, she says, those moments helped cultivate a “‘Joe's just one of us’ type of mentality” for many voters.

“He could get up there and command an audience. He sounded strong when he was speaking, his consonants were clear,” she says.

What’s changed more recently, Hallberg argues, is the way Biden speaks, which she describes as a “slurring” and “mumbling.” The public saw a flash of that issue when he responded to Hur’s report Thursday night, eliding words when he talked about how long he sat with the Special Counsel.

Some superficial factors are also shaping voter perceptions.

Patrick Kenger, a men’s stylist with Pivot Image Consultancy, says Biden’s gray hair may make voters view him as more than three years older than Trump. “Typically, the more gray that you have in your hair, your beard, you're going to come off as a little bit older,” he says.

To be fair, both men's public appearances draw their fair share of scrutiny. A recent Getty photo appeared to highlight how much make-up Trump was wearing, his face glistening and orange at an Iowa rally. Still, Kenger adds that Biden’s skin has less of a youthful look than Trump’s. “You could chalk this up to genetics,” he says.

When Megyn Kelly suggested to Trump in a September interview that he must have good genes, he agreed, noting that his dad lived into his 90s. “It’s really a parental thing,” he said. “I believe in the racehorse theory. Fast horses produce fast horses.”

But, perhaps sensing his own vulnerabilities on the age question, Trump passed up an opportunity to attack Biden over the issue. When Kelly asked if Biden was too old to be president, Trump said age had nothing to do with it.

“Age is interesting ‘cause some people are very sharp and some people do lose it,” Trump said, adding,But no, he's not too old at all. He's grossly incompetent. You look at some of the great world leaders, they were in their 80s and they did—Churchill, so many people, they were phenomenal in their 80s. There’s a great wisdom if you’re not in a position like him.”

Soon enough, voters will decide if they agree.

“I am concerned; eighty is old and you do need a president who can do the job,” says Ethan Hughes, a 21-year-old student in Iowa and a Democrat. “I don't think it's my primary concern.”

Hughes adds that he definitely won’t vote for Trump. He’s pleased with Biden’s accomplishments. His grandmother’s farm in Mason City got high-speed internet last year thanks to the infrastructure bill. And when he has seen Biden out and about, Hughes has been satisfied enough.

“He does look healthy,” Hughes says. “He’s on his bike all the time. He's walking around. Eating a bit too much ice cream, maybe, but who wouldn't?”

Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com.