Case study: Opie runs for congress!

Can young candidates win elections?

Can young candidates win elections?

When Adam Putnam, the 26 year old congressional candidate declared he would run for Congress, he was ridiculed in the press. "Putnam is 26 and looks as if he's going on 13" and "Opie runs for Congress," both from The Tampa Tribune. 

If you're young, running for office and trying to either de-emphasize your youth or make it an advantage, those aren't the type of headlines you want. How did Putnam handle it? 

Putnam had been planning his first campaign since his senior year in college at the University of Florida. Four years before he ran for Congress in 2000, Putnam ran for the state house of representatives at age 22, fresh out of college. 

Here are Putnam's own words on what it meant to serve in the state house first: 

My political experience was a big benefit because it counter-acted his life experience and the basis of his campaign was he was older, he spent more years in business, he’d been in more rotary clubs, and you know I mean the whole life experience issue versus my age and and what set what I was able to neutralize that with was the fact that I had served four years in the legislature. That was the sort of the central issue I think in terms of mitigating his offense.

If you look at my district I was pretty well right on the issues I was right on the philosophy I was right on my votes and I mean really the only thing people could say was he doesn’t have the life experience to devise a solution for social security or he’s not old enough to be compassionate about seniors making the choice between prescriptions and groceries and stuff like that.

[My age] certainly was a factor in the election. It was not an overwhelming detriment. I think it was at least offset. My youth was at least a wash because I think that there was many people kind of energized by the next generation stepping up to lead and and wanting to give back to the public and things like that as there were people who said he’s too young. [1]

Putnam chose to de-emphasize his youth, although he points to how it might have been an advantage towards the end of the statement. He focused on his legislative experience in order to offset whatever negative voters might see in his youth.

In other candidacies, it's been used as an advantage. Over the past few years a number of young, female republicans have received national notoriety for their candidacies.

Elise Stefanik of New York became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 2014. She focused on her age, talking to voters about "my generation" and "people my age" on the campaign trail. 

Saira Blair of West Virginia - also winning elective office for the first time in 2014 - became the youngest member of the West Virginia House of Delegates at age 18. She also became the youngest elected official in the country. Blair also made her youth central to the campaign: she reasoned that she uniquely had insight into young people who graduated college and chose to leave West Virginia, a growing problem. 

So if you're a young candidate making your first run for office, your first decision is: will you make your youth an advantage or find a way to de-emphasize it? Either is fine, but make sure you have a clear plan before you start running. 

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