URBANDALE, Iowa — Older Republicans say they aren’t opposed to Nikki Haley’s call for a new generation of politicians leading their party.
But when she calls for mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75, some of them start to feel insulted.
The 51-year-old Republican presidential contender has made evaluating the mental acuity of elder statesmen a key part of her opening campaign pitch. It’s one of the only ways Haley has sought to explicitly differentiate herself from former President Donald Trump, who is 76. And it’s one of the cudgels she’s deployed against 80-year-old President Joe Biden.
It’s also a risk.
In her short time on the trail, Haley has irked some older voters, the cohort that just so happens to be a substantial and reliable voting bloc within her party.
“I do like Nikki’s platform, her plank regarding term limits. I think that’s important,” Richard Ploss, 71, of Exeter, New Hampshire, said at her town hall in Manchester. But the mental competency test? “That’s a little over the top.”
“Well, we’re old …,” his 72-year-old wife, Susan Ploss, interjected. The Republican couple, who own a chemical supply company and previously voted for Trump, hesitated to applaud the line in Haley’s speech and ducked out before the question-and-answer portion of her event.
Interviews with more than a dozen attendees at Haley’s first campaign events in recent days — all but three in their 60s, 70s and 80s — revealed a GOP primary electorate open to a younger standard-bearer but sharply divided over the insinuation that someone their age might be lacking in mental aptitude. Seven said they opposed the call for applying mental acuity tests to elderly politicians. Three thought the testing requirement should apply to people of all ages. And three thought her plan targeting older people was a good idea.
Some political veterans in the key states said they weren’t surprised by those findings.
“I just feel like the competency test was a gimmick to get attention and one that ultimately could backfire, because arguably, the largest voting bloc in the Republican primary is older voters,” New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said. “New Hampshire’s population has been aging over the last decade. There are more and more older people coming to New Hampshire to retire.”
Haley’s campaign, in a statement to POLITICO, said she is merely suggesting the type of brief screening that doctors frequently used to measure older patients’ cognitive abilities.
“When 81-year-old Bernie Sanders is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, it’s not too much to have him take a 10-minute test to see whether he has the mental ability to draw a clock or identify an animal,” said Nachama Soloveichik, one of Haley’s campaign advisers. “We’re not talking rocket science here.”
On the trail, Haley has framed her call for cognitive tests on septuagenarian politicians as “not being disrespectful” but, rather, pursuing “transparency.”
The call was part of her campaign launch in South Carolina, accompanied by tangential proposals under the umbrella of generational change: such as calls to drain the swamp and institute congressional term limits. The proposal was echoed in her speech before a few hundred Republicans packed into the showroom of Royal Flooring in Urbandale on Monday. It was delivered between popular lines about stopping gender lessons and “woke ideologies” in schools and ending national “defeatism.” Mostly, Haley drew a rhythmic applause from the crowd, including when talking about competency tests. But approached directly, not all older voters were totally on board.
Eric Riedinger, 63, of Des Moines, said he could get behind a competency test that would apply to candidates of all ages — and believes “Trump would do excellent.” But he is against merely targeting people who have reached their 70s.
“Why base it on your seniors?” Riedinger said. “You know, I’m a senior now, too.”
Haley’s potential opponents on the trail have largely dismissed her call or come out in opposition.
Trump, for his part, spent much of the last week ignoring it. But by Tuesday morning, he had embraced it, adding that such a screening should not just apply to older politicians. “ANYBODY running for the Office of President of the United States should agree to take a full & complete Mental Competency Test,” Trump posted on his Truth Social website, also suggesting candidates take “a test which would prove that you are physically capable of doing the job.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, 72, on Tuesday said there was no need for more restrictions on voters’ choices.
“The U.S. Constitution lays out requirements to hold the office of President of the United States, so let’s stick with that,” Hutchinson, who is considering a run for president, said in a statement to POLITICO. “Additionally, there is a mental acuity test every time a candidate stands before voters in a town-hall setting, a diner on the campaign trail, or on a voter’s door step.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old entrepreneur now eyeing the Republican nomination, said Haley was “dead wrong” in calling for competency tests.
Former Vice President Mike Pence largely deflected when asked by a reporter last week, laughing as he said that voters in Indiana “think every politician should submit to a cognitive test.”
A representative for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) declined to comment about Haley’s proposal, while staff for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview at Haley’s Urbandale event, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), 67, said “there may be something” for Congress to do, eventually, with regard to gauging candidate competence. But she wasn’t convinced that there was any need for an immediate fix.
“But I would like to say that Sen. Grassley is tremendously competent,” the congresswoman, an ophthalmologist, said of 89-year-old Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator. “You talk to him, there’s not a subject that he’s not proficient in.”
Haley’s call comes as more than half of registered voters in a new national Harris/Harvard Center for American Political Studies poll say they doubt Biden’s mental fitness. That includes 66 percent of independents who, in open-primary states like New Hampshire, could pull a Republican primary ballot.
But Haley’s mental competency suggestion could prove to be off-putting to crucial voters in New Hampshire, which has the second-oldest population in the country based on median age, according to the most recent Census data.
At her town hall at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, Haley’s stump-speech line about cognitive tests for 75-year-olds drew noticeably less applause than her calls for generational change in leadership and for congressional term limits. Some voters grew visibly uncomfortable when asked their opinions of it.
Walter Neuman, an 80-year-old Republican from Hopkinton who voted for Trump in 2020, said “it’s about time” for younger leaders to take the helm of the party. But he added that he was “on the fence” about testing politicians’ mental acuity.
“I understand the concept,” Neuman said. “But we’ve been pretty successful through the years without it.”
Still, Haley has sold some voters on the idea, including those in the advanced-aged bracket. David Freligh, a 78-year-old from Pella, Iowa, said he fully supports the proposal.
“I’m slipping a little bit,” said Freligh, who wore an Air Force cap and a Haley 2024 T-shirt to her Monday town hall. “I think I’m still quite competent, but I’m not what I used to be.”
Republican Betty Gay, a former New Hampshire state representative who voted for Trump in 2020, said she would want mental competency tests “for people much younger” than 75.
“Age is not a guarantee that you’re wise,” the 77-year-old Republican said.
But there are signs that Haley knows the messaging on the competency tests needs to be fine-tuned. Across her two nights in New Hampshire, she added a line that tacitly acknowledged some older voters might be offended by the concept.
“I don’t mean any disrespect by that,” Haley said in Manchester. “But we all know young 75- year-olds and we all know old 75-year-olds, right? And you look at D.C. and you see a whole lot of old people. What I’m saying is you should have trust in who you send to Washington.”
By Monday night in Iowa, instead of focusing on all the old folks in D.C., Haley mocked Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-V.T.) disapproving response to her cognitive test suggestion. She then moved along to another topic.
Kim Schmett, a Republican consultant and activist in Iowa, said he “had to chuckle a little” when he first heard Haley’s competency test suggestion.
Schmett, who noted that his own age is creeping up, said he didn’t believe a cognitive exam is necessary for candidates, despite acknowledging concern about some aging officials. But he didn’t imagine the proposal itself would be determinative to Haley’s presidential prospects.
“I think most senior citizens realize there are some physical questions and so forth that are more frequent when you’re older,” Schmett said. “I don’t see any backlash for her on that.”