Presidential champion: Lichtman’s 13 keys are still the winning election formula

The White House (by Tom Lohdan on Flickr)

The White House (by Tom Lohdan on Flickr)

By Len Lazarick

For the eighth presidential election in a row, Professor Allan Lichtman has beaten the pundits and the pollsters, and accurately predicted the winner of the popular vote not just months but years in advance.

He called Tuesday’s election for Obama in May 2010, “regardless of the identity of the Republican nominee.” He affirmed that again last year, and in the new edition of his book this year. Lichtman’s well-tested and successful theory was not dependent on whether the Republican was Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich – or even Jon Huntsman or Mitch Daniels. wrote about Lichtman and his keys in September.

The pragmatic American voter

“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 who lives in Bethesda, says in the book. The full list of the keys is at the bottom.

Book cover Predicting the Next President“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.

“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.”

Meaningless commentary

Thus much of what has been written in the last day or two explains little about the election. The keys have an advantage over pundits and pollsters – they actually explain how Americans decide to vote reliably and consistently. They are premised on the idea that the parties will run credible campaigns and that the voters are not stupid.

The 13 keys also mean that what the pundits and pollsters say before the election is largely meaningless. Romney is up, Romney is down, Obama blew the debate, Obama won the debate, Ryan was a good pick, Biden should go. Most political commentary “has no more validity than sports talk radio,” Lichtman said in an interview. “It’s all personally justifying. You can’t prove it wrong, and you can’t prove it right.”

A good bit of what political journalists do, some of the best in the business, is simply entertainment, creating drama and suspense that have little ultimate significance. Lichtman’s theory pretty much undercuts all the columnists, analysts and talking heads. “This challenges the whole presumption of horse-race theory,” he said.

But what about that bad economy and the subjective judgments

But even if you’ve come to embrace the keys, you really had to wonder how they would hold up in the face of an economy that has been bad for Obama’s entire term.

Lichtman had already “turned” the long-term economy key (#6) against the president, but not the short-term economy (#5). “It wasn’t the best economy, but it wasn’t in recession,” Lichtman said.

The subjective nature of some of the keys, such as charisma, is also something for which Lichtman has been “blasted by the professional forecasters.”

“We’re dealing with human systems,” he explains, and “it’s not as subjective as you think,” since the keys have been answered for three dozen previous elections as a guide.

About 10 years ago, the forecasting profession made a turnaround, and “even the professional forecasters recognize that you have to have some degree of judgment,” Lichtman said.

For Lichtman, the keys lined up for Obama in 2010, and while they could have shifted – a spike in social unrest or a challenge from within his own party, for instance – that didn’t happen. What about the Supreme Court overturning the major policy change of Obamacare?

“I never speculate about the counter-factual,” Lichtman said. “The keys are not a crystal ball” though the cover of this year’s edition depicts one. (Lichtman says he didn’t choose the image). “They’re based on history.”

Nate Silver, the New York Times’ pollster analyst, published a long critique of Lichtman’s theory in August, finding flaws, including the subjectivity of some keys and their inability to predict the margin of victory. Silver was pretty amazing himself at predicting the Obama win in the weeks before the election, but that was short-term, and overall Lichtman doesn’t give much credence to polls.

So even if you thought Obama would win reelection, you probably didn’t predict it back in 2010. At that time, Lichtman gave him questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. And that was before Osama bin Laden’s death gave him 11.

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 than 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.

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.

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