Commentary: Most minds now made up on presidential race; 13 keys to White House predicts winner

The White House (by Tom Lohdan on Flickr)

The White House (by Tom Lohdan on Flickr)

A version of this column ran in the September issue of The Business Monthly serving Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

By Len Lazarick

With the party conventions over, it is safe to predict that all the fuss and blather have changed the minds of very few people.

Same goes for all the political coverage of the conventions, including the stuff I produced in Charlotte and the stories I ran on my website about Tampa.

In-depth polling and analysis indicates that most people have already made up their minds about which presidential candidates they will vote for – or at least whom they will vote against. Perhaps 10% of the electorate is in play and truly undecided. Those people who call themselves “independent” in fact consistently side with one party over the other.

Bombarded with ads

Book cover Predicting the Next PresidentYet we’re going to be bombarded for another two months with campaign ads and media coverage of polls, events and campaign gaffes. Who’s up, who’s down, who flubbed, who scored, who won the debate or lost it, who’s winning Ohio or Virginia. The barrage of TV spots has been going on for weeks in the Washington market, since it reaches crucial Virginia voters.

This coverage has the same impact on the results of the contest as those endless hours of sports talk radio have on who will win at Camden Yards or M&T stadium.

The media mavens put some of their best reporting talent to cover Obama and Romney, the Orioles or the Nats, the Ravens or the Redskins. This talent will churn out column after column, TV package after package, photo after photo, feature story after story, scoop after scoop.

Some of this is important information that voters need to know. Most of it is not, no matter how entertaining, titillating or infuriating.

Some event could change the judgments already made, but that is unlikely. The two major parties will focus on bringing out there supporters, and keeping their opponents at home.

Explaining elections and predicting the future

Campaigns are important, but what are much more important are the fundamentals of governing. That’s why I’m particularly fond of Professor Allan Lichtman’s 13 “Keys to the White House,” now out in a new 2012 edition, “Predicting the Next President”.

Originally conceived with a scientist in 1980, and updated since then, the 13 keys were developed to account for the outcomes of all the presidential elections from 1860 through 1980. What’s more, the keys have been used to successfully predict, far in advance, the outcome of every election since then. (The keys predict the popular vote, so they correctly forecasted that Vice President Al Gore won in 2000, although he lost Florida and the Electoral College.)

“The keys are driven by a dominant idea: that the American electorate is pragmatic; it responds to the broad-based performance of the party in power, not just the condition of the economy,” Lichtman, a history professor at American University, says in the book.

“In the end, the countless television images and reams of print devoted to the horse race tell us plenty about campaigns, but very little about elections – what really matters and why. Because nothing that is said can be tested, and because everything can be explained ex post facto [after the fact], no enduring lessons are learned. Election history becomes a grab bag of anecdotes and analogies rather than a reliable guide to understanding the most consequential decision made by the American people.”

Connecting governing to the election

“By showing how a pragmatic people respond to the major successes and failures of a presidency, the keys reinterpret American political history, connecting the actual governing of America to the selection of its leader. … The fact the outcome of every election is predictable without reference to issues, ideology, party loyalties, or campaign events allows us reasonably to conclude that many of the factors most commonly cited in explaining election results count for very little on Election Day.”

If you’re a political junkie or halfway interested in politics – people who aren’t are long gone to another page – this theory of the keys may be tough to swallow. It means that all those stories, tweets, polls, columns and analyses are largely a waste of time.

It takes Lichtman about 50 pages to do a complete job of explaining the keys. The rest of book shows how they apply to the 38 presidential elections since Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860.

13 keys to the White House

Here are the 13 keys to the White House. They are stated as conditions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer statements are false, the incumbent party wins. When six or more are false, the incumbent party loses.

  1. Incumbent-party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that it did after the previous midterm elections.
  2. Nomination contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
  3. Incumbency: The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.
  4. Third party: There is no significant third-party or independent campaign.
  5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
  6. Long-term economy: Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the two previous terms.
  7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
  8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
  9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
  10. Foreign or military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
  11. Foreign or military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
  12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
  13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Obama predicted to win

The keys will get quite a test this year as Lichtman turns them to unlock the election. As early as May 2010, he was saying the keys pointed to Obama’s reelection “regardless of the identity of the Republican nominee.” He affirmed that again last year, and in his book this year.

“Only three to four keys have fallen or are likely to fall against the party holding the White House in 2012,” Lichtman said. These include keys 1, 5 and 6 (the economy keys), 12, the charisma key, which Lichtman, a very liberal Democrat who ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, says Obama had in 2008 but has since lost. “Obama thus has a one to two key cushion. Depending on the state of the election year economy, one or two additional keys could topple and he still would be a predicted winner for 2012.”

Are these just the rantings of a liberal college professor? No, these are the views of a presidential historian who has staked his long-term reputation on assessing the factors that determine presidential elections and can predict them, as he did in all the elections since 1980 — the Reagan victory in 1984, the Bush victories in 1988 and 2004, the unexpected Bush defeat in 1992. The earliness of Lichtman’s prediction for Obama is remarkable and his continuing confidence in it will get a real-world test in eight weeks.

If Lichtman is right, turn off the TV set, stay off the Internet, disregard the pundits. They make no difference.

If Mitt Romney is elected, Allan Lichtman has some serious “splaining” to do.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Josh Miller

    After Romney’s blunder on the Libya murders, I wouldn’t trust him with a squirt gun. And I am a Republican!
    Romney is a tool.

  2. Bruce Robinson

    One question might be, can the Romney campaign flip the public perceptions on three or more keys in the eight weeks available? 7, 8, 9 & 11 have the potential. 7 – The administration was able to effect two policy changes and both were strictly along party lines and both in the first two years. The 10 election demonstrated a public dissatisfaction with those accomplishments. 8 – Several sections of the country are experiencing social unrest being met by strong governmental responses. Cities are the home to many Democratic voters, but those cities have suffered mightily over the last three years. The Chicago Teacher Strike, and Immanuel’s prominence point to some dissatisfaction with the incumbent’s party. As the head of their union was reported to have said, “They’ll know who not to bully.” 9 – Tax payments not made. Below market loans to congress-critters from lenders receiving favorable treatment in policies and legislation. 11 – The successes in foreign policy have been ending a war that was winding down, and winding down another. At the same time, we are seeing an uptick in failures in both of those theaters. Iraq has an increase in IED assaults and American trained Afghanistan forces are killing Americans at more than an alarming rate. Also, can you say GITMO? If these are the focus of Republican ads, they have a chance to change the public perception of the incumbent, and flip a key or two.

  3. jake

    Has anyone heard from either presidential candidate to reduce the price of gasoline to one dollar per gallon

    • Dale McNamee


      Obama & Romney have put forth their plans…Obama wants to stay the course and not increase the supply, the environmentalists’ agenda is more important, and useable resources remain locked up, hostage to that agenda.

      Mitt Romney would approve the XL pipeline and pursue developing all energy resources, coal, gas, nuclear, since solar & wind can’t operate on a large – scale basis…

  4. hungrypirana

    Len is perhaps understated in his use of “most.” I think it’s probably closer to 90% of the people who ultimately will cast a ballot.

    I hope the debates will be interesting, but odds are candidates will be so risk averse that substance and quality of argument will be obliterated.

    Only two of Lichtman’s 15 relate to the economy or voters’ economic circumstances.

    And there are plenty of other prognosticators who argue the economy weighs heavily on who voters pick.

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