Allan Lichtman: The 13 Keys to the White House ... Why the Democrats will take back the White House

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and the author of The Keys to the White House (1996).]

The election for president is more than a year away. Neither major party has as yet chosen a nominee. Yet the results of the 2008 election are already in: the Democrats will recapture the White House next fall, whether they nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, John Edwards, or Bill Richardson. Only an unprecedented cataclysmic change in American politics during the next year could salvage Republican hopes.

This good news for Democrats and grim news for Republicans comes from the “Keys to the White House,” a historically based prediction system that I developed in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, an authority on the mathematics of prediction models.

The Keys retrospectively accurately account for the popular vote winners of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980 and prospectively forecast the winners of every presidential election from 1984 through 2004. The keys model predicted George W. Bush’s reelection in April 2003.

The Keys show that elections are not horse races in which candidates surge ahead or fall behind on the campaign trail, with pollsters keeping score. Rather, a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president according to the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term — economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation. Nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies — the usual grist for the punditry mills — count for virtually nothing on Election Day.

The Keys include 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. (See table below.) When five or fewer of these propositions are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

Even without counting a single economic key against the incumbent Republicans, they currently have a seven key deficit, one more than necessary to predict their defeat in 2008.

The following Keys currently count against the incumbent party.

  • The party’s losses in the 2006 midterm elections topple Mandate Key 1.
  • The battle to replace George W. Bush costs the party Contest Key 2.
  • Bush’s inability to run again in 2008 dooms Incumbency Key 3.
  • The lack of a second-term policy revolution forfeits Policy Change Key 7.
  • The disaster in Iraq costs the administration both Foreign/Military Success Key 9 and Failure Key 10.
  • No GOP candidate equals the charisma of Ronald Reagan or the heroic stature of Dwight Eisenhower, toppling Charisma/National Hero Key 12.

    The following three Keys currently favor the incumbent Republican Party.

  • The absence of social upheavals comparable to the 1960’s, avoids the loss of Social Unrest Key 8.
  • The failure of scandals to impact the president directly keeps Scandal Key 9 from falling against the GOP.
  • The Democratic challenger is unlikely to match the charisma of Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, keeping the Challenger Charisma/Hero Key 13 in line for the incumbents.

    The following Keys are uncertain:

  • Third Party Key 4 depends on whether New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who switched from Republican to independent, chooses to run an insurgent campaign for president.
  • Short-Term Economy Key 5 and Long-Term Economy Key 6 depend upon uncertain economic forecasts for the upcoming year.

    Two caveats are in order. First, as a nationally based system, the Keys predict only the popular vote. In the last hundred years, however, the popular and Electoral College votes have diverged only in the 2000 election. For the special circumstances of that election, see, Lichtman, “What Really Happened in Florida’s 2000 Presidential Election,” Journal of Legal Studies 32(1), 2003). Second, the Democrats may well introduce an element of uncertainly by making a path-breaking nomination of either a woman, Hillary Clinton, or an African-American, Barack Obama. The keys, however, are a robust system that has endured through momentous changes in the electorate, the economy, the society, and the technology of elections. It is unlikely that any contingency will alter the negative verdict on the party in power.

    The verdict of the Keys for 2008 does not depend on the particular candidate nominated by either party. So my advice to Republicans and Democrats alike in the primary elections is to vote for the candidate you believe in for 2008 and forget the misleading pursuit of the false grail of so-called “electability.”

    Summary of the 13 Keys as of September 2007:

    The Keys are stated to favor the reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer are false, the incumbent party wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

    KEY 1 (Party Mandate): After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections. (FALSE)

    KEY 2 (Contest): There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination. (FALSE)

    KEY 3 (Incumbency): The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. (FALSE)

    KEY 4 (Third party): There is no significant third-party or independent campaign. (UNCERTAIN)

    KEY 5 (Short-term economy): The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. (UNCERTAIN)

    KEY 6 (Long-term economy): Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. (UNCERTAIN)

    KEY 7 (Policy change): The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. (FALSE)

    KEY 8 (Social unrest): There is no sustained social unrest during the term. (TRUE)

    KEY 9 (Scandal): The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. (TRUE)

    KEY 10 (Foreign/military failure): The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. (FALSE)

    KEY 11 (Foreign/military success): The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. (FALSE)

    KEY 12 (Incumbent charisma): The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. (FALSE)

    KEY 13 (Challenger charisma): The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. (TRUE)

  • Read entire article at Britannica Blog

    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Frank Lee - 10/13/2007

    Mr. Hughes apparently forgot to conjecture how many votes bush would have lost if information had become known to Republican voters that bush:

    * May have engaged in insider trading
    * Failed in every business except the one which began by getting the taxpayers to raise the already-regressive local sales tax to fund a new stadium for the Texas Rangers baseball team
    * Went AWOL from his National Guard obligation
    * Was forced to stop flying for the TNG when he refused a medical exam which might have revealed use of illegal narcotics (including cocaine)
    * His wife ran a stop sign and crashed into the car being driven by her boyfriend (or former boyfriend), killing him instantly - she received no tickets, no charges

    Mr. Hughes: how many Republican votes would bush have lost if the above was known by the public-at-large?

    Stephen Archibald Smithington - 10/12/2007

    How crazy are you Republican supporters? In the face of overwhelming and irrefutible evidence that this Republican Administration has lied about the war, spyed on civilians, lied to congressional committees, is more concerned with fixing elections then enlarging the franchise, and on and on, you are still grasping at any straws to prop up this idiot president. The Republicans will lose because Americans are sick and tired and the Republican candidates are boring and have not ran away from Bush enough (well actually Huckabee(?) and that other wingnut have).

    See you in 8 years when you will win again!!

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Like the Super Bowl or the Stock Market, the "keys" correctly predict which political party will win the presidential election, except when they don't. In the case of the 2008 election, however, what does this semi-scientific crystal balling tell us that we don't already know?

    Warren Leonard Nelson - 10/9/2007

    Using your keys and not trying to propagandize that the Democrats will win
    I get the following results
    Key 1:F
    Key 2:F
    Key 3:F
    Key 4:T
    Key 5:U
    Key 6:U
    Key 7:U
    Key 8:T
    Key 9:T (on Keys 8 and 9 you must believe the propaganda of the Democrats and their allies in the Radical Islamisist movements. You must also ignore the realpolitiks of the situation to get your answers)
    Key 10:T
    Key 11:T
    Key 12:U
    Key 13:U
    For a score of 5 true, 3 false and 5 uncertain. If I am as biased towards the Republicans as the author is towards the Democrats, the score is 10 true and 3 false, in other words the Democrats don't have any chance of winning the Presidency.
    I think an honest evaluation using the keys is that the election is a toss up at this point. The Republicans have a slim advantage on keeping the Presidency that could disappear quickly depending on future events and the Candidates selected.

    KEY 9 (Scandal) could change in the democrats favor if the Larry Craig frame-job in Minnesota and the Republican intra-party dirty tricks are exposed. Or some other scandal could appear. The Media will do a wonderful job of ignoring the plethora of scandals on the democrat's side.

    Key 7 {Policy change)This one can still go to the Republicans favor. The option of going back to the failed foreign and military policies of the Clintons' and the Democrats that led to 911 and made the invasion of Iraq necessary and would likely force military conflict with Iran or staying with the policy changes made by the Bush administration make Key 7 likely to be in the Republicans favor.

    I could design a national poll around the keys that would give the advantage to either party and look statistically valid. Predicting future elections based on the 13 keys which rely heavily on opinions is doomed to inaccuracy because of the individual's personal opinions using them and human nature. With the clarity of hindsight the 13 keys can be made to look valid but it is an evil use of the 13 keys to falsely predict an up coming election results and claim that the Candidates campaigns and the votes of the voters won't make a difference.

    Vernon Clayson - 10/8/2007

    I read this article carefully and feel it is far too complicated to be taken seriously. We are a shallow and easily led electorate and this theory fails to take that into consideration. We take voting on American Idol as seriously as we do voting for our political leaders. The coming election has no celebrity we can indulge with our votes except Hillary Clinton and she only because of her husband's appeal, he was a celebrity while in office, an entertaining rogue with no morals, principles or scruples and the public loved him for his weaknesses in those regards. The thought of him and his foibles back in the White House, albeit in a lesser role, makes the celebrity crazed public weak-kneed and trembling in anticipation, only entertainers at the Geroge Clooney or Britney Spears level would get to share grocery store tabloid headlines with silver-haired Bill. If Rudy Guiliani had Bill's hair, he would be a shoo-in with his history of wives and lovers. Romney has the hair but is too square, if only he had decades of affairs or sent Massachusetts State Troopers out to bring him women. Yep, we are shallow, it's Bill we want back in the White House, even though we have to tolerate Hillary in the main office.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/8/2007

    Apparently "the system" failed to accurately predict George W. Bush would win the election of 2000, and weaseled out with its prediction Al Gore would win the popular vote that year... (Not terribly surprising, since the author was once a consultant to Al Gore, per Wikipedia). Unfortunately, George W. Bush lost four million votes in the last six days before 2000, as the result of a 25-year-old DUI late hit which the Democrats held in reserve from March and unleashed at the optimal point in the campaign, on the thursday before the election, bringing the vote count to a dead heat--in which America just got lucky. Without this dirty trick, Bush would have won the popular vote quite handily. (He might have won it anyway, if totals were adjusted for fraud in big cities, fraud by illegal aliens, and fraud on Indian reservations).

    Looking ahead, 2008 should be classified a random walk. Who knows what late hits might come to a Democrat having the potential for them of a Hillary Clinton! Who knows if the Iraq War will be considered a flop in November '08? Petraeus has been doing pretty well. Who knows whether America will be attacked again between now and then? Most economic forecasters predict good times in the year ahead, and are not "uncertain." The marginal seats now held by Democrats in the House are mostly in conservative districts. While it doesn't look like the GOP can flip the Senate, it does appear anything else could happen in 2008.

    Those who are so certain about what will happen should sell their houses and put the money in escrow with London bookmakers.