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Hillary Clinton in 2016: The Actuarial Odds

Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers are unprecedented. She holds more than 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote, a figure usually reserved for popular sitting vice presidents—even though these polls pit her against a sitting vice president. It’s tempting to wonder whether it’s even possible for her to lose the Democratic nomination. I asserted in a meeting two weeks ago that she has a 99 percent of locking up the nomination, although who knows the actual odds. But if her chances are close to that, her biggest challenge might just be surviving to November 2016.

According to actuarial data from the Center for Disease Control, four percent of 65-year-old white woman will die before November 2016. Now, Hillary Clinton isn’t the average 65-year-old white woman: She’s probably healthier than most, she’s rich, and she will have access to the best medical care. Her mother lived to age 92 (a 65-year-old white woman lives to a median age of 85 or 86). All of those factors improve her odds. Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania's life expectancy calculator suggests Clinton's life expectancy is more than 94 years, with a median of 96. According to my back of the envelope calculation, a 65-year-old white woman expected to live to 96 has a 99.2 percent chance of surviving the Iowa caucuses and a 98.9 percent chance of surviving the 2016 presidential election.

That's about the same as other white female senators, cabinet secretaries, or first ladies who served after World War II. Only Jackie Kennedy, who died of lymphoma at 64, died before 78. That’s a lot better than white women generally: just 75 percent of all white women who live to age 60 make it to 77, compared to 96 percent of female senators, cabinet secretaries, and first ladies. 

Over time, the curved red line will probably move even further to the right. That senator who died at age 78, Hazel Abel, was born in 1888. Younger generations of female senators, first ladies, and cabinet secretaries—again, other than Jackie Kennedy—have tended to survive into their late eighties and early nineties. And the majority of female senators, first ladies, and cabinet secretaries are still alive. Every year that Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush survive moves the right-end of the red line a little further. And there's a wave of younger female senators and cabinet secretaries in their mid-70s, like Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, Elizabeth Dole, and Barbara Mikulski, who all seem poised to extend the top of the red curve. 

Hillary might not be much likelier to die than other candidates, either. Being a woman helps. A 65-year-old white woman has the same odds of dying the following year as a 60-year-old white male. That puts her in roughly the same place as George H.W. Bush when he sought the presidency. She probably has a better chance than Ronald Reagan did. It would seem to give her much better odds than vice president Joe Biden, who’s a male and already older: eight percent of 69-year-old white males will die before the 2016 presidential election.

The main Republican contenders, on the other hand, are much younger. 99 percent of 45-year-old-white males (Scott Walker) will stick around through 2016, while 50-year-olds like Rand Paul clock in at 98 percent. A 60-year-old white male, like Jeb Bush, basically has the same odds of surviving 2016 as a 65-year-old white female. And like Clinton, all of these Republican candidates are probably healthier and richer than the average—and therefore likelier to survive. Paul, Bush, and Walker probably have a 99-plus percent chance of surviving till 2016. 

The clear exception is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is just 50 years old, but studies show that obesity reduces life expectancy anywhere from six to ten years. According to the University of Pennsylvania life expectancy calculator, Christie's life expectancy is 73 years, with a median of 74. That gives Christie the worst odds of any candidate: he has a 96.6 percent chance of living to the 2016 presidential election and only has an 84.2 percent chance of surviving until January 2025, when he might be concluding his second term in the White House. In comparison, Hillary Clinton gets a 93.8 percent chance—which lines up nicely with the 92 percent of white female senators, cabinet secretaries, and first ladies who have survived to age 78.

So Hillary Clinton fans can probably rest easy. But, if you believe that Clinton’s odds of winning the nomination approach 99 percent, then there’s a case that death is the biggest threat to Clinton’s candidacy—even if it's a remote one.