ST. PAUL, Minn. — Since John McCain announced Friday that first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate, Democrats have been quick to point out that the 44-year-old governor cou ld soon be just “a heartbeat away from the presidency.” The veiled reference to McCain’s advanced age is hard to miss.
It’s a macabre point to raise on the night when Palin will speak to the convention here – but a look at the actuarial tables insurance companies use to evaluate customers shows that it’s not an irrelevant one. According to these statistics, there is a roughly 1-in-3 chance that a 72-year-old man will not reach the age of 80, which is how old McCain would be at the end of a second presidential term. And that doesn’t factor in individual medical history, such as McCain’s battles with potentially lethal skin cancer.
“For a man, that’s above the expected lifetime at the present,” said Michael Powers, a professor of risk management and insurance at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
The odds of a 72-year-old man living four more years, or one full White House term, are better. But for a man who has lived 72 years and 67 days (McCain’s age on Election Day this year), there is between a 14.2 and 15.1 percent chance of dying before Inauguration Day in 2013, according to the Social Security Administration’s 2004 actuarial tables and the authoritative 2001 mortality statistics assembled by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Going by the Social Security Administration’s tables, that’s nearly ten times the likelihood that a man aged 47 years and 92 days (Obama’s age on Election Day this year) will die before January 20, 2013.
Using the NAIC tables instead, which factor in the fact that Obama has been a smoker for most of his adult life, a non-smoker McCain’s age is still six times as likely to die in the next four years as a smoker Obama’s age.
Actuaries are quick to point out that mortality statistics describe broad population trends. They insist the models can’t necessarily be applied to individual people.
“Actuarial models are good for estimating the average future lifetime of, say, 100,000 50-year-olds, or how many out of 100,000 50-year-olds will survive to 60, but are lousy at estimating about one particular 50-year-old,” explained Jim Daniel, a professor of actuarial studies at the University of Texas.
The odds, then, that John Sidney McCain will reach the age of 76 or 80 may be considerably higher than in the population at large.
Jack Luff, an actuary with the Society of Actuaries, also notes that the NAIC statistics are slightly weighted toward a higher probability of death.
“The [Commissioners Standard Ordinary] table is directed at life insurance and does have a margin in it with respect to extra deaths for financial reporting purposes,” said Luff.
Utilizing an annuity table instead, which is used for the purposes of disbursing pensions and tends to predict slightly greater longevity, a man McCain’s age has a marginally reduced, one-in-ten chance of not reaching age 76.
Still, the quarter-century age gap between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain is the widest ever between major-party presidential candidates. And no matter what table is applied, the difference in average mortality rates of men McCain’s age and men Obama’s age is enormous.
According to the Social Security Administration, there is a roughly 1.6 percent chance that a man Obama’s age would die before completing one term in the White House. Even factoring in Obama’s cigarette usage, there is, on average, still only a 2.4 percent chance of death between Election Day this year and January 20, 2013, according to the NAIC.
And since the actuarial risks of cigarette smoking are believed to wear off over time and Obama has not suffered from lung cancer in the past, the Democrat’s long-term odds could be closer to those of a non-smoker, according to several actuaries.
Powers observed that these statistics would be incomplete without factoring in the two men’s full medical histories, adding: “McCain’s expected age of death is probably higher than Obama’s because he’s already lived to the age of 72.”
But for voters, the most important question is how well the candidates are likely to fare during one or two terms in office. With Obama and McCain, it’s not clear that factoring in outside medical information would make the comparison any more flattering to the presumptive Republican nominee.
“It’s not just a matter of McCain being age 72,” said Lois Horwitz of Boston University’s department of mathematics and statistics. “It has to do with, of course, the underwriting characteristics of their lives.”
Actuaries say different insurance companies might factor in McCain’s history of cancer differently, but that in any case it probably wouldn’t help the Republican nominee’s odds.
“If they have a known condition they’re going to be looked at very carefully,” Luff explained. With melanoma, he said, “they’d probably look for five years with no recurrence.”
“My understanding is that with even the worst forms of skin cancer, if they’re caught early the lethality is not that great,” said Powers, who added: “The risk associated with that lesion would probably have more to do with the probability of having future lesions.”
Plus, Powers noted, serving four or eight years in the White House could wear down the presidential candidates even beyond what actuarial statistics would predict.
“Probably, there is a substantial effect associated with being in an office like the presidency,” said Powers. “I think people do believe it tends to age you rather quickly.”
McCain has acknowledged in the past that his advanced age would be a factor in the presidential campaign, particularly when it came to choosing a running mate.
In April, the Arizona senator told radio host Don Imus: “I’m aware of [the] enhanced importance of this issue given my age.”
As early as 2007 there was speculation that McCain might pledge to serve just one term, in light of his advanced years. McCain ruled out that possibility in an August 20 interview with Politico, saying simply: “I’m not considering it.”
The McCain campaign has pushed back hard on any traces of ageism coming from the candidate’s critics, accusing Obama of age discrimination in May when the Illinois senator responded to a McCain statement by saying the Republican was “losing his bearings.”
During the Republican primaries, actor Chuck Norris also cited McCain’s age as a factor in his own decision to support former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“That’s why I didn’t pick John to support, because I’m just afraid the vice president will wind up taking over his job within that four-year presidency,” Norris explained in January.