Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has become the 13th major Republican candidate for president. Born on June 10, 1971, he is the youngest of the lot. The second-youngest is Senator Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, just two weeks older.
Their decisions to run might seem puzzling. Governor Jindal has little support. A recent poll found that he was the choice of just one likely Republican primary voter out of 236 respondents – not 1 percent, but one person. Senator Rubio is doing much better in surveys, but he has a daunting task: In his home state of Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush has already locked up a great deal of organizational and financial support.
Moreover, if they stay in the presidential race and lose, they will be out of office. Jindal faces a gubernatorial term limit this year, and running for president means not running for the Senate. Rubio, likewise, is passing up a Senate reelection campaign. So wouldn’t it make more sense for them to forgo a 2016 presidential bid? After all, even if they were to wait until the year 2036, they would still be younger than Hillary Clinton is today.
Part of the answer is the general election’s setting. After a party has been in the White House for two terms, many voters start to think that it is time for a change. All other things being equal, these circumstances give an edge to the out-party. Of course, other things are not always equal, since good economic news and foreign policy triumphs can shift the advantage back to the in-party. In 1988, the economy was strong and President Reagan’s visit to Red Square dramatized the easing of cold war tensions. Accordingly, Vice President George H.W. Bush scored a third consecutive GOP victory. As we approach 2016, however, the economy does not look quite that robust, and the international scene seems dicey.
So to any Republican who wants to be president, 2016 appears to offer a pretty good chance. That’s why 11 other GOP candidates have gotten in the race.
There is also a cost to waiting for another turn. Suppose that Jindal and Rubio were to sit out 2016 and that another Republican won the election. Presumably, winner would seek reelection in 2020, meaning that Jindal and Rubio would not have another shot until 2024. At that point, the GOP would face the potential third-term disadvantage that Democrats are confronting today. Perhaps conditions would become more auspicious four or eight years after that, but it is impossible to forecast political trends that far ahead.
One thing is absolutely certain, however: In future presidential elections, Jindal and Rubio will be older than they are today. That self-evident truth may sound trivial, but it probably drives their determination to run this time. Their relative youth is at the core of their appeal. They can both claim to be representatives of a new generation, and they can talk up their youthful vigor, like JFK in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992.
The 2016 election may not be their last chance to run for president, but it will be their last chance to run in their mid-40s. If they were to wait until their 50s, they would be fighting with younger, hungrier rivals.
In politics as in baseball, it gets late early out there.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.