Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What is the chance that Sarah Palin becomes president?

There has been a fair amount of uneasy talk about John McCain's age, mostly confined to late-night talk shows. Conventional commentators don't want to talk about it, for fear of being labeled with the "discrimination" tag. But McCain's pick of first-term governor Sarah Palin as his running mate has brought the subject back to the fore, though still in a somewhat veiled form. (After all, if we start to disqualify people based on age, how will we work Doris Kearns Goodwin into every conceivable situation?)

But it is a factor that we need to take into account. If you want to argue that the vice presidential pick is truly irrelevant, then you are assuming that it is a sure thing that the president will be around for the full complement of 4 or 8 years. And we know that it is less likely to be true of John McCain than of Barack Obama.

But how much less likely? Let's turn to the actuarial tables at the Social Security Administration for an answer. This is a table of life expectancies by age broken down by males and females (the numbers are for 2004, but they have not appreciably changed in a few years).

I can foresee some objections to using these tables. They aggregate all ethnic groups, and they ignore any specifics about an individual's health. I'll grant that, but, taking into account McCain's past history of cancer and Vietnam experience, and weighing that against his vigor and his superior medical care, I'm going to use these numbers while conceding a degree of variability.

First, a 72 year old man has a 3.3% chance of dying in the next year. That doesn't seem too bad, 1 out of 30, but a quick calculation yields a 14.4% chance of dying in four years and 31.7% in eight. In other words, there's a 1 out of 7 chance that McCain won't last out his first term. (For the sake of completeness, the numbers for Obama are 1.8% for 4 years, 4.3% for 8; in other words, Obama has a greater probability of lasting two terms than McCain has of lasting two years.)

It would be interesting to find historical actuarial tables and try to determine if we can find an "aging factor" for the job of president. We've all seen the photos that show how much a president seems to age in his years in office, and it appears that the job is extra wearing on the men who have held it. So it's possible that McCain's numbers should be higher (with the caveats I mentioned above that could adjust them higher or lower).

So one can argue that Sarah Palin's lack of experience is unimportant, that she has other skills which will compensate for that, and that's a fair argument to have. But to argue that there is little chance that the country will have to face the situation of President Palin, well, that's clearly nonsensical - it's a very real possibility that this mayor and first-term governor will become the most powerful person in the world.

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