In a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan made a memorable quip when asked if his age, then 73, would jeopardize his ability to govern effectively.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and lack of experience,” said Reagan.
Now, with two recent polls citing Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s golden years as a serious concern among voters, one of Lautenberg’s potential opponents has already attempted to pre-empt a similar joke from the senator.
“I hope that age is not an issue, and that my youth and vigor will not be held against me,” said Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio, who announced last month that he’s considering running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
But there’s no question that Lautenberg’s age, 83, weighs on the minds of voters, 61 percent of whom say he’s too old to effectively serve another term, according to today’s Rutgers-Eagleton poll (a Quinnipiac poll last month had similar results). When the question was phrased differently, emphasizing that Lautenberg will be 90 when his term is up, those numbers ticked up slightly to 64 percent.
Whether that will matter on Election Day, when Lautenberg goes head-to-head with a member of a party that hasn’t won a New Jersey Senate seat since 1972, is another story.
Pennacchio said that, should he choose to run for Senate and win the Republican nomination, he doesn’t plan to make Lautenberg’s age a campaign issue.
“I think Frank Lautenberg’s major issue is not his age, it’s that he really doesn’t have a vision,” said Pennacchio. “At this point I really don’t care if Frank Lautenberg is 22 years old or 92 years old. My concern is the way he represents the people of New Jersey, and quite frankly he’s been AWOL at best.”
The numbers that Pennacchio noticed most in the poll were that only 24 percent of respondents who thought that Lautenberg deserved another term, or the 13 percent of voters who had never heard of him.
At first glance, a lot of the numbers in the poll do indeed make Lautenberg look vulnerable — 61 percent of respondents said that it’s “time for a change.” And while Lautenberg’s favorability and job approval ratings are positive, they’re far from stellar – he’s 38-25 percent favorable, but his job performance is positive by a smaller margin of 37-32 percent.
"Just one more indication that voters in New Jersey are ready for a change,” said Rebecca Fisher, Communications Director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“We look forward to the opportunity to give them that choice.”
But this is New Jersey, after all, and the populace has been exposed to enough scandals to make them cynical towards any politician.
Jennifer Duffy, a Senior Editor at the Cook Political Report in Washington, said that pollsters in the Garden State often come across a tough attitude towards local politicians that doesn’t always reflect who voters choose on Election Day. Indeed, even if his approval rating isn’t stellar, Lautenberg’s well above the rating for congress as a whole.
“Looking at the 61 percent time for a change number, I’m not so sure if that’s a reflection of Lautenberg as much as it is of voter’s moods,” said Duffy.
Just look at U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s numbers from an Eagleton Institute poll conducted last October. A month before the election, he had an upside down favorability rating — 29 percent favorable to 36 percent unfavorable among registered voters. And, similar to Lautenberg’s numbers, nine percent of registered voters had never heard of him, while 22 percent had no opinion. Menendez still managed to beat Republican Tom Kean, Jr. by eight points, despite Kean trumping him in that poll’s favorability rating.
Of course, that was for a recently appointed freshman Senator from Hudson County, not New Jersey’s elder statesman. It should be at least troubling that someone who’s been around so long has lower numbers for name recognition, said David Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.
“Senator Lautenberg can’t change his age, but he can work hard alleviate citizens concerns,” said Rebovich. “He needs to get out there, continue to make the rounds up and down the state stumping.”
Still, Rebovich said, Democrats have an important weapon. In a state as blue as New Jersey, they can remind voters that control of the Senate hangs in the balance. Voters, in turn, are not likely to hand control of the legislative body over to Republicans just because Lautenberg is getting on in years.
And while some Democrats may see Lautenberg as vulnerable, they’re not likely to ask him to step aside. This is, after all, a man who’s said to regret retiring from the Senate, and who stepped in when the party was in a bind after Sen. Robert Toricelli was tied to a scandal that hurt his shot at reelection.
“How do you say that to someone who bailed out the party a few years ago?” asked Rebvoich.
Steve DiMicco, a spokesman for the Lautenberg campaign, said the poll results were virtually meaningless. The lackluster numbers, he said, have more to do with a national malaise than anything on Lautenberg’s part.
“What voters are expressing here is a dissatisfaction with the direction in which the country has been moving, and that is a reflection of the president’s policies more than it is of Frank Lautenberg,” said DiMicco. “When voters are given a real choice between frank Lautenberg and a specific opponent, you’re going to see Frank Lautenberg with a wide lead.”