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An Age Old Question

Is Frank Lautenberg too old to effectively serve as a U.S. Senator for New Jersey? The answer seems to depend on how you ask the question.

Lautenberg, at 84 years old, is the third oldest incumbent in the U.S. Senate. Two polls released today show conflicting results on attitudes toward Lautenberg’s age. Quinnipiac’s poll shows a majority of registered voters who think New Jersey’s senior senator is too old to effectively serve another six year term. On the other hand, our own Monmouth/Gannett Poll finds fewer than 1-in-3 voters who think Lautenberg is too old to be effective.

So what gives? Well, since both polls have the Senate race with similar margins (9 points Quinnipiac and 10 points in our poll), the main difference appears to be the way the two polls ask the age question.

Quinnipiac asks: At age 84, do you think Frank Lautenberg is too old to effectively serve another six year term as United States Senator? They’ve asked this question five times over the past year and have obtained consistent results each time:

Quinnipiac: Is Lautenberg too old?

Date Yes No
Sep 08 54% 40%
Aug 08 55% 39%
Jun 08 54% 41%
Feb 08 58% 36%
Sep 07 54% 40%

By comparison, Monmouth asks the following question: Do you agree or disagree that Frank Lautenberg is too old to be an effective senator?, to which we have obtained the following results in the last year:

Monmouth/Gannett: Is Lautenberg too old?

Date Yes No
Sep 08 31% 57%
Jul 08 31% 54%
Apr 08 41% 46%
Jan 08 34% 51%

We found some increased concern about Lautenberg’s age in April, when he faced a primary challenge from Congressman Rob Andrews and the incumbent’s age was raised as an issue. But this quickly receded after he won the nomination in June.

One difference between the two questions is that the Quinnipiac question asks voters to focus on Lautenberg serving out another term whereas the Monmouth question implies a present-time context. This likely accounts for some, but certainly not all of the 23 point disparity between the two polls. The more important difference appears to be that Quinnipiac actually mentions the senator’s age, while Monmouth does not. And this does seem to matter significantly.

In July, we performed a question wording experiment where half the voter sample was asked our standard Lautenberg age question and the other half was asked the following about an unnamed person: In general, do you agree or disagree that someone 84 years of age is probably too old to be an effective senator? On the latter question, we found 46% of voters in agreement – a full 15 points higher than those who said Lautenberg is too old in our standard question format.

Now, I hear you saying, “But Lautenberg is 84, so why isn’t there more concern about his age?” Well, it’s because most voters don’t really know how old he is. In the poll released today, we asked voters to tell us how old they think their senator is. The average guess? 75 years old – fully nine years younger than his actual age! In fact, fewer than 1-in-4 voters could place Lautenberg’s age in the right decade.

Additionally, it appears that most New Jersey voters consider the mid-70s an acceptable age for public service. In the same July poll where we experimented with asking about Lautenberg’s age, we did a comparable test for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. In that poll, we found that 21% of voters thought McCain was too old to serve effectively as president. This was not remarkably different from the 28% who said the same about a generic 72-year old, McCain’s current age.

Pollsters can have reasonable differences in how they frame a question. Should we put survey respondents in the present context or focus them on the future? How much information should we include in a question when most voters are unaware of that information? This is something that we frequently deliberate about when crafting questions about issues, such as toll hike plans.

At the outset, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll made a decision not to mention Lautenberg’s specific age in our question wording. Our intent was to obtain results that reflected current perceptions based on what voters believe his age to be. If, as most observers expect, Senator Lautenberg’s age becomes more widely discussed in the current campaign, we anticipate this question will be able to capture the impact of any heightened voter awareness, as it appears to have done during this spring’s primary battle.