How Many Presidents Are Alive?

This has nothing to do with video games. It’s just a little thing I started on late last year and thought today — President’s Day — would be a good day to finally finish it up. Feel free to move on if you don’t like some very trivial trivia.

That’s the question: How many presidents are alive, right now? The easy answer is five: one current (Obama) and four former (Bush, Bush, Clinton, Carter). But that’s not quite accurate. Someone will replace Obama in 2017, unless laws change drastically to allow a two-year-old to hold office, or George H. W. Bush wins the 2016 election, which seems unlikely. (In fact, it was news of the elder Bush’s hospitalization near the end of last year that got me thinking about this mini-project.)

A bald man has never been elected president

A bald man has never been elected president

So, there is someone out there, whether it be Hilary Clinton or Chris Christie, who will be elected president in 2016 and start his or her term in 2017, bringing the “current president” total to six… well, actually it’s more than that. Someone will start his or her term in 2021 — maybe the same as the one who starts in 2017 — but we’ll have at least one more new person by 2025, and so on.

Currently, you must be at least 35 years of age to become president, and you can’t be elected to more than two terms (or one term if you serve at least half of the previous president’s term following his death or removal from office). That means that a person born tomorrow would turn 35 in 2050 and not be eligible for the presidency until the 2052 election. That leaves nine elections (2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036, 2040, 2044, 2048), which, barring a change in the Constitution allowing for a younger president, will be won by someone who is currently alive.

To get the minimum number of future presidents, we can assume each one serves a full eight years. That means a new prez in 2017, 2025, 2033, 2041, and 2049. So, at the very least, there are five future presidents  — hey, maybe you’re one! — and 10 total presidents — past, current, and former — currently alive.

That number is almost certainly higher. Some presidents won’t win multiple terms. Some might not serve out their full terms. And that child-born-tomorrow will only be 37 in the 2052 election, which would make him or her the youngest president in history. It’s more likely that someone in their 50s or 60s will win that contest.

So how many future presidents are usually alive? For that, I spent a few hours creating a spreadsheet using the information on this helpful Wikipedia page. Since I started this exercise the last week of December, 2014, I counted all presidents on Dec. 31 of each year, from 1732 (the year Washington was born) to 2014. This leads to there being a few gaps if you want to take things day by day. For instance, on Dec. 31, 1840, there were 15 future presidents. William Henry Harrison took office, reducing the number to 14, but he died a month after his inauguration, and John Tyler took over, reducing the number to 13, which is what it was, and what I recorded for 1841. (This page breaks it down with much more granularity.)

Does a suit count as a costume?

Does a suit count as a costume?

I won’t reproduce my entire spreadsheet here — it’s pretty big — but it shows that there have always been at least eight future presidents alive at the end of each year from 1773 to 1968. The far end of that range is almost certain to increase, if someone 49 or older takes office in 2017. We’d only need three more future presidents alive right now than my conservative pick of five above to basically extend that minimum of eight until the present day.

Over that nearly 200-year “range of eight” span, the average number of future presidents alive in each year was 11.2. FDR depressed that number a bit during his long tenure, but it was inflated by the high number of one-term presidents — and deaths in office — in the 19th century. In fact from 1837 (Van Buren) to 1912 (Taft), only two presidents (Grant and Cleveland) out of 19 served a full eight years in office — and Cleveland’s two terms were split. Unless something happens to Obama, four out of the last five presidents will have served a full eight years.

I think that Americans are tending more toward two-term presidents as a rule — change is scary, after all — and people are living longer, thus reducing the chance a president will die in office, so I’d say that 11.2 number is a little high for the 21st century. There were only nine years in the 20th century (that we know of) when 11 future presidents were alive on Dec. 31. If I had to guess, I’d say we have 10 future presidents alive right now, for a total of 15 presidents. Given how the population is aging, it might not even be wrong to say that the first president of the 22nd century is alive right now, and probably in diapers.

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