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With aging U.S. presidential hopefuls, how much will their running mates matter to voters?

Political scientists say the age of the two frontrunners for U.S. president might see voters pay more attention to vice presidential candidates than they usually would, but doubt the public will cast their vote based on who might step up in the event their first choice becomes too old to serve.

Voters don't usually pay much attention to vice presidents during campaigns, political scientists say

A woman with shoulder-length black hair wears a suit as she listens to a man speak from the U.S. presidential podium

A special counsel report investigating U.S. President Joe Biden's handling of classified documents spared the world leader of criminal charges on Thursday.

But the report still dealt a politically devastating blow to the incumbent just nine months away from the next vote: It made multiple, blunt notes about Biden's age and mental abilities.

In recounting five different interviews with the president, special counsel Robert Hur described Biden, then 80, as a "well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory" — so much so, he wrote, that members of the public wouldn't convict him of knowingly committing a felony.

"It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him by then a former president well into his eighties of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness," Hur wrote in his lengthy report.

The comments set off yet another political firestorm around age and mental fitness in the U.S. presidential campaign, which, for the first time in history, will likely be led by two men who would be in their 80s by the time their term ends.

Political scientists say the aging slate might see voters pay more attention to vice presidential candidates than they usually would, but doubt the public will cast their vote based on who they might prefer as a pinch-hitter in the event their first choice for president couldn't do the job.

WATCH | Biden says, 'My memory is fine':

President Biden responds to challenges about his age and memory

1 day ago

Duration 1:45

U.S. President Joe Biden denied special counsel Robert Hur's assertion that his memory has gotten worse over time, telling reporters his 'memory is fine' on Thursday night. He also responded to comments in Hur's classified documents report questioning whether he could remember when his late son, Beau Biden, passed away, saying, 'How in the hell dare he raise that?'

"It's not really realistic to expect an American voter to say, 'I'm really concerned about Biden's mental acuity, but it's OK. I'm going to vote for him knowing that, if he has to step down, [Kamala] Harris is there,'" said Renan Levine, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

"I am very skeptical that, even with more attention [on age,] that the vice president will loom large in many voters' minds."

Biden has been plagued by questions around his mental and physical fitness for the last several years, concerns fuelled in part by verbal blunders and public stumbles. Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has previously said a vote for Biden would be a vote for "President Kamala Harris."

I’m attacked for being honest and saying the quiet part out loud – the part DC insiders only do in private.<br><br>I admire our President. I voted for him and campaigned for him. He has visited my home and been gracious to my family and our country.<br><br>But shame on all of you pretending… <a href="https://t.co/OdaKvW7vbc">pic.twitter.com/OdaKvW7vbc</a>

&mdash;@deanbphillips

Former president Donald Trump, who has faced a dizzying array of criminal indictments and questions around his mental fitness, continues to dominate the race to become Republican nominee against Haley, his only remaining major rival. In a recent speech, Trump, 77, confused his primary rival Nikki Haley with Democrat and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Polls have shown Americans are concerned about the mental and physical health of both men, but a new survey for NBC News said they were particularly worried about Biden: Three-quarters of respondents, including half of Democrats, expressed their concern with his overall fitness.

If a president were ever unable to perform their duties as president, it would be their vice president's constitutional duty to step into the role. In a race where both candidates are as old as they are, Levine said, it would be reasonable to think a vice president might have a higher likelihood of being called up.

A man in his 70s stares to his left against a black background.

But the majority of U.S. voters typically don't decide their vote based on the vice presidential candidate, even in a race where they might become more.

"Most Americans, we have to remember, especially in this moment, vote for the candidate of the party that they usually or habitually vote for," said Levine.

"It's not like people go, 'Oh, well, who's the president? Eh, don't love him. Then who's the vice president?'"

WATCH | Harris Harris decries special counsel report, calling it politically motivated:

Vice-President Harris calls special counsel's report 'gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate'

12 hours ago

Duration 1:49

Coming to U.S. President Joe Biden's defence, Vice-President Kamala Harris decried special counsel Robert Hur's report questioning Biden's mental acuity, calling it politically motivated and saying they expected Hur to have acted with 'a higher level of integrity than what we saw.'

Paul Quirk, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said the question becomes whether the presidential candidates' age is a big enough issue to push voters to pay more attention to the second-in-command.

"Does the vice presidential candidate matter when he or she is much more likely than usual to become president? This is a new circumstance," said Quirk.

Vice presidents walking fine line

In recent campaigns, vice presidents are typically used to rally the party's voter base and shore up support for the presidential candidate. Harris and the Republican nominee's running mate will each have to walk a fine line of standing behind their respective potential commander-in-chief while making plain their own ability to serve.

"That's going to be the delicate balance that they're going to need to demonstrate throughout the rest of this year," said political science professor Beth Fischer, referring to the Biden-Harris strategy.

That's a message ambitious candidates already know how to deliver, Quirk noted.

"They would be emphatically expressing confidence that the presidential candidate will serve out the term while declaring that they are prepared if, somehow, he doesn't," he said.

"But that's what they always do."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk

Senior Writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a senior writer for CBC News based in Vancouver. Over nearly a decade, she has reported on subjects including criminal justice, civil litigation, natural disasters and climate change. You can send story tips to rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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