Politics & Analytics: Who holds the keys to the White House?
Predicting the 2016 U.S. presidential election: What the “13 Keys” forecast, what to watch for and why they might not matter.
By Douglas A. Samuelson
Donald Trump could win the popular vote for president this year, not get elected and lead his party to disaster. The nastiest campaign in recent memory could also have one of the strangest outcomes.
According to quantitative historian Allan Lichtman, Trump has a serious chance to win the popular vote. Based on his “13 Keys” model , Lichtman called the 2016 election inconclusive as of May, with three of the 13 variables yet to be determined. “The 13 Keys model has been remarkably stable through all kinds of variations that led people to say, ‘This election is different,’ ” Lichtman says. “This record of reliability and the implications of which variables made it into the model still indicate that presidential elections are about governance, not campaigning.”
Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., has been the subject of several feature articles in OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines [8, 9]. More significantly, he has attracted quite a bit of coverage in the mainstream media, his books continue to sell well, and it is evident that campaign strategists take his model into consideration in their planning. 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, Al Gore’s narrow popular vote win in 2000 and Obama’s 2012 reelection two years in advance .
His predictions are based on 13 questions, each with a “true” or “false” answer. “True” answers favor the incumbent party. If five or fewer answers are “true,” the incumbent party retains the presidency; if six or more are “false,” the challenger wins. Interestingly, with few exceptions, the 13 Keys have little or nothing to do with the perceived strengths or weaknesses of the presumed presidential nominees. (Trump’s “unorthodox” campaign will no doubt put the 13 Keys theory to a stress test this year.)
The 13 Keys to the Presidency
Following are the 13 Keys and Lichtman’s assessment of how they turn (as of May):
- After the midterm election, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the preceding midterm election. (FALSE)
- The incumbent-party nominee gets at least two-thirds of the vote on the first ballot at the nominating convention. (UNDETERMINED)
- The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. (FALSE)
- There is no third-party or independent candidacy that wins at least 5 percent of the vote. (UNDETERMINED)
- The economy is not in recession during the campaign. (TRUE)
- Real (constant-dollar) per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth for the preceding two terms. (TRUE)
- The administration achieves a major policy change during the term, on the order of the New Deal or the first-term Reagan “revolution.” (FALSE)
- There has been no major social unrest during the term, sufficient to cause deep concerns about the unraveling of society. (TRUE)
- There is no broad recognition of a scandal that directly touches the president. (TRUE)
- There has been no military or foreign policy failure during the term, substantial enough that it appears to undermine America’s national interests significantly or threaten its standing in the world. (TRUE)
- There has been a military or foreign policy success during the term substantial enough to advance America’s national interests or improve its standing in the world. (UNDETERMINED)
- The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or is a national hero. (FALSE)
- The challenger is not charismatic and is not a national hero. (TRUE)
Again, if six or more of these statements are false, the incumbent party loses.
For this election, Lichtman says the Democrats have lost Key 1 (the 2014 mid-term election was a setback), Key 3 (incumbency), Key 7 (major policy change) and Key 12 (the incumbent-party candidate is not very charismatic or a national hero). Key 2 (no incumbent-party contested nomination), Key 4 (significant third-party candidacy) and Key 11 (major military of foreign policy success) are still “in play.”
This leaves the Republicans two keys short of what they need, with three keys undecided. In short, no prediction yet, but those three keys will determine the ultimate winner of the popular vote, according to the 13 Keys.
Key 2 looks as if it will fall against the Democrats, as Sen. Sanders has more than one-third of the delegates and seems determined to fight all the way to the convention. Lichtman also asserts that Key 2 seems to be the best single predictor. “The last incumbent-party candidate who won after a serious contest for his party’s nomination was James Garfield in 1880,” he points out. “That’s a long time.”
This may help to explain efforts by President Obama and Hillary Clinton to persuade Bernie Sanders to drop or at least mute his opposition to her nomination before the convention.
Key 4 appeared solid for the incumbents, but the recent entry of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as a Libertarian could tip Key 4 if Johnson can get 5 percent of the vote. As of this writing, polls showed him getting as much as 10 percent, but polls can change quite a bit in five months, especially for third-party candidates.
Lichtman notes that third-party candidacies generally hurt the incumbent party, regardless of the previous affiliation of the third-party contestant. Johnson is a Republican, but like John Anderson in 1980, also a Republican, he appeals to disaffected voters from both major parties.
Key 11 depends essentially on how well President Obama can make the case that the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris agreement on carbon emission controls to combat climate change are major accomplishments. It is most likely no coincidence that both presumptive nominees keep talking about foreign policy accomplishments or lack thereof. Still, Lichtman observed, “For a president who was supposed to be such a great communicator, Obama hasn’t been all that effective at communicating the benefits of his claimed successes.”
As for Key 13, Lichtman says, “No matter how strong a candidate’s appeal to one-third of the electorate, if the other two-thirds despise him, he doesn’t turn the charisma key.” On the other hand, he notes, deep divisions within the challenging party – even including the replacement of the nominee, if it were somehow to happen – do not affect the forecast.
The Science Behind It
It is worth re-emphasizing that the 13 Keys model is based on a statistical pattern recognition algorithm. The emergence of these 13 variables implies that governance is more important than campaign characteristics. “Political consultants hate the Keys,” Lichtman says. “They keep telling me, ‘Give us something we can influence!’ But that’s not what the model indicates.”
Of course, he adds, this does not mean that a candidate favored by the Keys could simply go home and await the results. Clearly the model assumes the usual sorts of campaign activities by both sides. Given that, however, the model also implies that much more of the same won’t change the outcome.
It is also important to note that while massive spending on media blitzes and local organizations may not affect the national popular vote much, it certainly can tip the result in a few closely contested swing states and in Senate and House races, and has substantially affected the nomination primaries and caucuses. The Keys model does not address these effects.
The model’s success also underscores the unimportance of poll results this far ahead of the election. Lichtman declares bluntly, “Polls more than two months before the election are meaningless.” Indeed, as he points out, George H. W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by 17 points three months before the 1988 election, and Gore trailed George W. Bush in every poll up to the weekend before the 2000 election, and then only edged ahead in one, the Zogby poll. But Gore won the popular vote, as the model predicted.
Other Things to Watch
Even if the popular vote is headed Trump’s way, as the Keys model appears to imply, the electoral vote is still in play, and many Senate and House races are hotly contested as well. So here are some things that do matter:
The electoral vote is different from the popular vote. The Democrats start with a group of mostly big states that have gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, and those states add up to 242 electoral votes . It only takes 270 electoral votes to win. Watch Florida (29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13). The Republicans would need to carry Florida and at least two more of these states. They also need to pick up some usually Democratic states such as Wisconsin (10) and Colorado (9).
Voter access, encouragement and discouragement, and differences in access to voting. In Ohio in 2004 and 2006, allocations of voting machines to precincts and provisions for replacing malfunctioning machines contributed to long waiting times, mostly in poor and minority-heavy urban areas. A few years ago, analytics-based efforts to improve the process were outlined in OR/MS Today . However, the concern continues in Ohio and elsewhere, as do efforts to tighten requirements for voter registration and actual voting. Multiple lawsuits allege that these efforts are really directed at suppressing legitimate voting.
Vote counting rules. In addition to his work on the Keys model, Lichtman has testified as an expert witness in more than 75 cases of alleged wrongdoing in counting votes. In Florida in 2000, he found that the way the rules for counting ballots were applied was a critical factor: Ballots with a hole punched for a candidate and the same candidate’s name written in were disqualified as double votes, even though the voter’s intent was clear. This rule resulted in the disqualification of more than 120,000 ballots, disproportionately from black voters .
“If black voters’ ballots had been rejected at the same rate as white voters’ ballots,” Lichtman concluded, “there would have been 50,000 more black votes statewide.” Assuming the disqualified votes would have split similarly to the black votes that did get counted, this would have tipped the election to Gore. Clearly, counting rules are also a continuing issue that will command attention .
Ethnic blocs. In particular, Latino voters look like the swing bloc in several key states where the races look close; Florida, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are most frequently mentioned by commentators on this topic. Political analysts estimate that the Republican candidate needs about 40 percent of the Latino vote to win . George W. Bush drew 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, John McCain received 31 percent in 2000 and Mitt Romney collected just 27 percent in 2012. Recent polls have Trump below 20 percent. If this pattern holds, the anti-anti-immigration backlash could cost the Republicans a number of Senate seats, as well as the electoral votes of enough states to cost Trump the presidency.
Targeting appeals to selected groups is a well-known and long-standing (more than 50 years old) campaign method that has had considerable impact, particularly in more localized elections, such as those for House districts . In some cases, however, targeting also raises questions of propriety and of possible undermining of the integrity of the political process. Negative messages, either localized or on a large scale, risk a phenomenon known in sales as market saturation; people simply get disgusted with both sides. There is a stronger, more specific backlash against negative messages subsequently proven to be false.
The effects of massive spending. Big money spent on media blitzes and on organizational activity may not affect the national popular vote by much, but it can and does influence primaries, Senate and House races and the outcomes in a few closely contested swing states. Beyond a certain point, however, big spending could also create a backlash from people over-saturated with the ads, phone calls and house-to-house canvassers. Tracking “how much is enough and how much is too much” will be an interesting challenge.
The self-serving professional class. One reason candidates keep raising and spending more and more money, for what the Keys model indicates is of little benefit, is because all the fund-raisers, political consultants and pundits keep telling them they have to. This does, however, generate considerable benefits for the fund-raisers, political consultants and pundits. Eugene Burdick, a highly regarded political scientist in addition to his stellar career as a novelist, pointed out most of the applicable ethical issues in his 1956 and 1964 novels [1, 2]. Naturally, these people are also among the first and most committed to argue against any legislation limiting the money or its uses in advertising, just as the major manufacturers of voting machines are among the first and most committed to raise all kinds of creative objections to any strict standards on the reliability and tamper-resistance of voting machines.
While political methods and tactics continue to change, some factors seem fairly reliable over the long term in enabling us to predict who will win. Barring major new events, these factors favor Donald Trump’s election, at least in the popular vote. However, Clinton seems somewhat the better bet to win the electoral vote, and both parties are expected to campaign intensely in the half-dozen swing states. TV advertising is likely to have little practical effect other than to annoy most voters. Issues of voter access and bloc voting could substantially affect the electoral vote, however, and potentially cast doubt on the fairness of the election.
OR/MS analysts, regardless of political preferences, would do well to learn about the analytical methods and issues that contribute to improving elections and keeping them credible.
Doug Samuelson (email@example.com), a frequent contributor to OR/MS Today, is president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. Samuelson worked as a paid campaign staffer in a U.S. Senate campaign in Nevada in 1970, as a county coordinator in a gubernatorial campaign and targeting analyst for a local campaign in California in 1974, and as a Federal Civil Service policy analyst from 1975 to 1982. He is a longtime member of INFORMS.
- Burdick, Eugene, 1956, “The Ninth Wave,” Houghton Mifflin.
- Burdick, Eugene, 1964, “The 480,” McGraw-Hill.
- Csetlar, Maralee, July 12, 2010, “Scholar’s 13 Keys’ Predict Another Obama Win,” http://www.american.edu/media/news/20100712_Lichtman_Predicts_Obama_Wins_Reelection_2012.cfm
- Kyle, Susan, Samuelson, D., Scheuren, F., and Vincinanza, N., Winter 2007, “Explaining the Differences Between Official Votes and Exit Polls in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Chance.
- Lichtman, Allan J., 2016, “Predicting the Next Presiden: The Keys to the White House,” 2016 Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md.
- Lichtman, Allan, January 2003, “What Really Happened in Florida’s 2000 Presidential Election,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 32, p. 221.
- Lichtman, A. 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. 7230-7234.
- Samuelson, Doug, June 2011, “Election 2012: The 13 Keys to the White House,” OR/MS Today.
- Samuelson, Doug, September-October 2012, “Election 2012 Update: The 13 Keys’ to the White House,” Analytics.
- Samuelson, Doug, Ted Allen and Michael Bernshteyn, December 2007, “The Right Not to Wait: Forecasting and Simulation Reduce Waiting Times to Vote,” OR/MS Today.