MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Claire Preece went to see Nikki Haley speak this week, the registered independent was still conflicted over whether she’d vote in Tuesday’s Republican or Democratic primary. But she knew one thing for sure: Joe Biden is too old to earn her vote again.
“You know, you’ve done your job,” Preece said of Biden. “My goodness it’s time. I retired from nursing, when it just got to be too much. It’s done, you’ve done your part … [Biden] needs to retire. He’s not appropriate anymore.”
Biden’s age comes up over and over again on the campaign trail among Trump-supporting Republicans, but also among independents who backed Biden in the last election and now feel he is too old to run again. For New Hampshire voters leaning toward voting for Haley, many cited her age — she’s 52 — as a major incentive.
Haley is most directly positioned to benefit from real concerns about Biden’s age — voters here are worried about the president falling or another medical emergency, and used words like “old” and “tired” to describe him — in the Granite State, where independents can choose in which primary to participate. Across the state at recent campaign events, many of them seemed interested in the former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina governor, who was described as part of a new generation.
Haley is leaning into that opening, stepping up attacks on Biden and Trump, hitting them on their older ages. At all of her recent campaign events, she says some variation of, “people don’t want two 80 year-olds running for president,” — a line that often generates applause and laughter from the crowd. Haley will also often say Vice President Harris will become president if the country reelects Biden, a not-so-subtle suggestion that Biden could die in office.
But it’s unclear how independents — who form roughly 30 percent of the American electorate — will behave in the general election if, as polls suggest, the matchup will ultimately be between Biden and Trump.
Biden’s age has loomed over his reelection efforts, seemingly his biggest political vulnerability. Public polls consistently show voters, as many as three out of four, believe he’s too old to run the country for another four years. Since he first started running for president in 2019, Biden has often responded to concerns about his age with two words: “Watch me.”
In recent months, Biden has acknowledged questions about his age are “totally legitimate,” but he has tried to defuse them with humor while also emphasizing his experience. Several months ago, Ben LaBolt, White House communications director, said about the attacks on Biden’s age: “No president has ever come to the job with more experience, and President Biden has leveraged that experience into a record of accomplishments that few presidents have matched.”
Brian Kearns, an independent from Rochester backing Haley, said he voted for Biden in 2020 but has “no idea” what he would do if faced with another rematch.
“His leadership has not been what I thought it would be,” Kearns said of Biden. “When he was vice president he seemed more alert, a smart guy, [and now] you just don’t see that.”
Those sentiments were echoed by other New Hampshire independents, though some of them said they would back Biden over Trump if they end up facing each other in the general election.
Martina Kenny of Bedford, N.H., an independent planning to vote for Haley in the primary, voted for Biden four years ago, and said she would again if her choice is between him and Trump. But if Haley were to win the GOP nomination, she’d likely vote for her because she’s worried about Biden’s age.
“I guess my concern obviously would be [Biden’s] health, you know, that if anything ever happened, I mean, not to say that can’t happen to anybody, but as you get older, you’re more susceptible to falls and breaks and heart attacks,” Kenny said just before Haley spoke at a campaign event on Friday night. “I would be concerned about, you know, who’s going to take over if something ever happened to him. Nikki just seems, she’s young, she’s vibrant, she’s a fresh face and we need that in this country.”
Roland Nutter, and his wife, Debbie, from Pepperell, Mass., crossed state lines to attend a Haley event in Hollis, already big fans of hers. Nutter is a registered Republican, but said he has not supported Trump in the last two elections. He doesn’t think Biden has done a bad job as a president, but said, “my biggest concern is his age.”
“We need a younger generation,” Nutter said. “I thought we had passed a torch a while ago.”
The issue of Biden’s age is also central to Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips’ sales pitch in his long shot challenge to Biden in the Democratic primary. “At that stage of life, it is impossible ultimately to conduct, to prosecute the office of the American presidency in the way that this country in the world needs right now. That is an absolute truth,” he told Axios in a recent interview.
At a Phillips event on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Jane Levesque said she had switched to the Democratic Party because of Trump. She called Trump a “constant liar” and said she abhorred how he called his opponents’ names, such as when he referred to Biden as “Sleepy Joe.” But now, as Biden’s contemporary, she was concerned about his age.
“As an 82-year-old I know what it’s like to be old and tired,” said Levesque, who said she would be voting for Phillips.
Meanwhile, her husband, Adrian, 85, standing beside her at a Phillips event, shared his wife’s desire for someone new. He thought Haley could offer a fresh, badly needed perspective to the Republican Party.
“She’s young, she’s a new generation,” he said.
Several days ago, waiting to see Haley in person for the first time, Preece offered a similar assessment.
“We gotta get somebody who isn’t a heartbeat away from the casket,” she said.
Tyler Pager, Meryl Kornfield and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.