13 Keys to the White House
Quantitative historian Allan Lichtman (photo) uses analytics to predict elections.
By Douglas A. Samuelson
At this writing (mid-June), the polls and the pundits say the presidential election is too close to call, a real horse race. To at least one analyst, however, the result was already pretty much a sure thing nearly two years ago: a win for the Democrats. His model deserves to be taken seriously, as it has correctly predicted the popular vote outcome of every U. S. Presidential election since 1984, including George H. W. Bush’s comeback from nearly 20 percent behind in the polls in 1988, and Al Gore’s narrow win in 2000.
Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at The American University in Washington, D.C., was a consultant to the 1992 Gore campaign (among others), is a successful early predictor of the last six presidential elections, and authored the popular book,”The Keys to the White House”(1996),later updated and reissued to include the analysis of the 1996 election and predictions for 2000. His forecast of a Gore popular-vote victory is on record at least as early as September 1999, when he stated, “There are five keys against the incumbent party at this time. If the Democrats have a serious contest for the nomination, they will lose; otherwise, they will win.” No other forecast except the last Zogby poll, just before the election, got it right.
Professor Lichtman is one of the analysts highlighted in the 1996 INFORMS-produced videotape on careers in operations research. Ironically, he had never identified himself as an O.R. analyst before he was invited to participate in making the tape; he describes himself as a quantitative historian. His Ph.D. is in history, from Harvard. The invitation resulted from an appearance at the Washington, D. C., chapter of INFORMS’ banquet in June 1996.
Whether he calls himself an O.R. analyst or not, Lichtman created a pathbreaking use of operations research techniques to solve a complicated problem. For many years he received little appreciation, within the profession and outside it, of just what he had accomplished.
Lichtman’s predictions are based on 13 questions (see box), each with a “yes” or “no” answer. “Yes” answers favor the incumbent party. If five or fewer answers are “no,” the incumbent party retains the presidency; if six or more are “no,” the challenger wins.
For the 2008 presidential election, Lichtman says the Republicans have lost Key 1 (the 2006 mid-term election was a huge setback), Key 3 (the incumbent-party candidate is not the current president), Key 6 (long-term economic growth), Key 7 (there were no significant policy changes during this term), Key 10 (the Iraq war is widely regarded as a failure), Key 11 (there were no major military or foreign-policy successes) and Key 12 (the incumbent-party candidate is not very charismatic or a national hero.) They seem likely to lose Key 5, as well, as many people believe the country is sliding into a recession, and Barack Obama’s charm and appeal could still turn Key 13 – although that’s not easy, as only the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan have turned it in this century.
The Republicans hold Key 4, the significant third-party presence, because no candidate seems likely to get five percent of the vote, the criterion for turning this key. Key 2, the contest for the incumbent-party nomination, falls to the challenger if no candidate comes to the convention with two-thirds of the delegates – so John McCain’s unexpectedly easy victory for the nomination kept this key for the Republicans, contradicting Lichtman’s 2005 prediction. The Republicans hold Keys 8 and 9 as well, at least so far, as there is no widespread perception of scandal and no major social unrest. This still leaves them three keys short of what they need, however, with the Democrats holding one more than they need, and two keys still undecided.
There’s Science Behind It
Lichtman is quick to point out that his method is based on a solid statistical model that incorporates a test of competing theories of politics, and the prediction results validate some of the theories and contradict others. His method is based on a statistical pattern recognition algorithm for predicting earthquakes, implemented by Russian seismologist Vladimir Keilis-Borok. The highest plurality of the popular vote, not the electoral vote that actually decides the presidency, is the criterion — which means that in two elections, 1876 and 1888, the “winner” as defined in this method did not end up as president. Out of nearly 200 questions, which were all binary (“yes” or “no”) variables, the algorithm picked those that displayed the greatest difference between the proportion of the time the variable was “yes” for years when the incumbent party won and the corresponding proportion for years when the challenging party won, using all U. S. elections from 1860 through 1976 as the training set. Interestingly, the single most powerful variable was the key that turned out to be critical in 2000 – the presence or absence of a significant contest for the incumbent-party nomination.
“Naturally, we thought the intensity of the fight for the challenging-party nomination would also be important, but it turned out not to be,”Lichtman adds.”There’s a big fight for the challenging-party nomination either when they’re pretty sure they’ll win, or when they’re in horrible shape and they’re all blaming each other. So that one didn’t have much of an association with who won.” This means that neither the hard-fought campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama nor how quickly and thoroughly they reconcile and unite is likely to make much difference.
While the model was first ignored and then controversial, it now seems to be gaining broader acceptance both from the forecasting community and from political professionals. Other analysts have included it, respectfully, in their reviews of forecasting methods. Pundit “Morton Kondracke treated it as pretty definitive in his TV commentary recently,”Lichtman reports.”And in 2004,Kerry’s people were paying attention, although they didn’t manage to turn the keys they tried to turn.” (In his acceptance speech for the nomination, Kerry emphasized scandalous behavior by the administration, the lack of a clear success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his claims to national hero status. These are Keys 9, 11 and 13, the ones that were still in play. However, the Bush campaign’s responses on those issues suggest that some of them had read the book, too. As it worked out, none of those three keys turned Kerry’s way, leaving him two keys short of what he needed.)
Lichtman also points out that a number of other variables didn’t have much effect: adverse reports on candidates’ health, running mates and endorsements, among others. “The point,” he asserts, “is that elections are less about campaigning than people like to believe, and more about governance. That doesn’t mean one party could just stay home, do no campaigning at all and still win if the keys were in its favor. It does mean, though, that the little ups and downs in the campaigns don’t have all that much effect, no matter what the pundits claim. The people are sensible, and they decide based on how well the party in power has governed.
“Political professionals hate the keys,” he laughs. “They tell me, ‘Go back to your computer and give us something we can manipulate.’ ”
Reflecting on the 2000 election,he added,”There was some irony in the impeachment. If Clinton had been removed, Gore would have been running as the incumbent president, and the Republicans would have lost another key. It seems counter-intuitive, but what the theory says is that Gore would have gone into the campaign with more public support because they would already see him as a successful president, a known quantity.”
In 2004, Lichtman thought that a bolder campaign by Kerry, breaking out of the traditional patterns of rhetoric and positioning, might have created a better chance for success: “He could have been more creative and forceful in getting his issues before the public, and maybe that would have helped.” He also concedes, though, that he had predicted a Republican victory in 2004 by mid-2003, mostly because the Republicans held all four of the political keys (Keys 1 through 4) “and that’s a pretty good indication of strength.”
And what of the obvious anomaly in 2008, the unprecedented candidacies of both a female and a black challenger? “Of course a departure from all the historical data could throw the model off,”he says,”but these factors have been pretty stable for a long time, in spite of other major changes along the way. It seems the nomination process and all the standard aspects of campaigning make the whole thing, overall, fairly consistent over time. If the country wasn’t ready for a serious black candidate, we wouldn’t have one. So the election will still come down to satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the incumbent party – and we can see where that’s going.”
Doug Samuelson is a principal decision scientist for Serco – North America, a general professional services company in Reston, Va., and president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. He worked professionally as a campaign staffer in a U. S. Senate campaign in Nevada in 1970 and as a county coordinator in a gubernatorial campaign in California in 1974, and has done volunteer work in several other.
1. Armstrong, J. S. & Cuzan, A. G., Feb. 2006, “Index Methods for Forecasting: An Application to the American Presidential Elections,” Foresight, The International Journal of Applied Forecasting, Issue 3, pp. 10-13.
2. Jones, R. J., 2007, “The State of Presidential Election Forecasting in 2004,” paper presented at the 2007 ISF International Symposium on Forecasting, New York, N.Y.
3. Jones, R. J., 2002, “Who Will be in the White House?: Predicting Presidential Elections,” New York: Longman.
4. Lichtman, Allan J., Feb. 2006, “The Keys to the White House: Forecast for 2008,” Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting, Issue 3, pp. 5-9.
5. Lichtman, Allan J., 2005, “The Keys to the White House,” Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
6. Lichtman, Allan J. & Keilis-Borok, V. I., July 2004, “What Kerry Must Do to Win (But Probably Won’t),” Counterpunch, www.counterpunch.org/lichtman07292004.html.
7. Lichtman, Allan J., 2000, “The Keys to the White House, 2000,” Madison Books, Lanham, Md.
8. Lichtman, Allan J., 1996, “The Keys to the White House, 1996,” Madison Books, Lanham, Md.
9. Lichtman, Allan J., and DeCell, Kenneth, 1990, “The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency,” Madison Books, Lanham, Md.
10. Lichtman, Allan J., and Keilis-Borok, V. I., 1981, “Pattern Recognition Applied to Presidential Elections in the United States, 1860-1980: Role of Integral Social, Economic and Political Traits,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol. 78, No. 11, pp. 7,230-7,234.
11. Samuelson, Doug, 2004, “Does O.R. Hold the Keys to the White House?” OR/MS Today, February, pp. 36-39.
12. Samuelson, Doug, 2000, “Gore Wins! At Least That’s What the Model Says,” OR/MS Today, October, pp. 24-26.
13. Samuelson, Doug, 1996, “Unlocking the Door to the White House,” OR/MS Today, October, pp. 28-30.
1. The incumbent party holds more seats in the U. S. House of Representatives after the midterm election than after the preceding midterm election.
2. There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.
3. The incumbent-party candidate is the current president.
4. There is no significant third-party or independent candidacy.
5. The economy is not in recession during the campaign.
6. Real (constant-dollar) per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth for the preceding two terms.
7. The administration has effected major policy changes during the term.
8. There has been no major social unrest during the term.
9. The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
10. There has been no major military or foreign policy failure during the term.
11. There has been a major military or foreign policy success during the term.
12. The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or is a national hero.
13. The challenger is not charismatic and is not a national hero. If six or more of these statements are false, the incumbent party loses.