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Analytics Magazine

Quantitative Historian’s Perspective: Predicting the presidential election

September/October 2012

Will the “13 keys” once again open the door to the White House?

Doug SamuelsonBy Doug Samuelson

As most U.S. readers of Analytics are no doubt painfully aware, we are in the middle of the most expensive presidential election campaign in history, by far. The Obama and Romney campaigns seem likely to raise and spend, combined, more than $3 billion, with much of the money going to an overwhelming “blitz” of TV ads. What TV time isn’t consumed by these ads seems to be filled with commentary and punditry. As a friend of this reporter’s remarked, “By October, there won’t be 15 seconds available on TV for someone to sell soap.” But to what effect?

According to at least one source, not much. Last summer, with the presidential election a year and a half away, campaigning and punditry were already intense, with many commentators noting Obama’s low approval numbers in the polls and pronouncing him highly vulnerable. The most reliable model of presidential elections, however, indicated a different answer. Based on his “13 Keys” model, quantitative historian Allan Lichtman called the 2012 election for Obama nearly a year ago, with some caveats about how some keys might change. His forecast hasn’t changed, but the amount of money being raised and poured into TV ads, among other factors, is much different from the past. How might the election go this time? How can we tell?

Professor Lichtman’s assessment: “The 13 keys model has been remarkably stable through all kinds of variations that led people to say, ‘This election is different.’ 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. The punch line is that most of that money will be wasted. The one thing it will do, especially with all these attack ads, is get people so fed up with all of the political process that it will be hard for whoever wins to govern.”

Mitt Romney (left) and Barack Obama: a tight battle for the White House.
Mitt Romney (left) and Barack Obama: a tight battle for the White House.

OR/MS Today [the membership magazine of INFORMS, www.orms-today.org] may remember Allan Lichtman, professor of history at The American University in Washington, D.C. He was the subject of feature articles in OR/MS Today in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2011. More significantly, he has attracted quite a bit of coverage in the news 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, and Al Gore’s narrow win in 2000.

His 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 this election, Lichtman said the Democrats have lost Key 1 (the 2010 mid-term election was a huge setback), Key 6 (long-term economic growth) and Key 12 (the incumbent-party candidate is not very charismatic or a national hero.)

This leaves the Republicans three keys short of what they need, with the Democrats holding 10 keys.

When Professor Lichtman made his forecast in 2010, some keys were still subject to change, and the current call on some of them deserves comment:

  • If enough elements of governance had gone wrong, a serious challenge either within the party or from a third party could have emerged. Neither did.
  • The economy could have slid back into recession. As of August, however, even the Republicans’ ads were criticizing the Obama administrations for “the slowest recovery since the Depression,” a gloomy situation but not a recession.
  • The administration’s big policy change, the Affordable Care Act, could have been struck down by the Supreme Court and may still be widely unpopular, but past instances, such as FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” suggest that the ability to enact change, not the way that change plays out, is what turns this key.
  • Major social unrest could have erupted – either the “Occupy” demonstrations or some right-wing activities, such as the private-sector border patrols in Arizona or the controversial protests by the Westboro Baptist Church, could have escalated into widespread turmoil. 1968 was the last time this key turned, after things were fairly calm in the summer of 1967, so the key can turn quickly. But it didn’t.
  • There are always plenty of opportunities for major military or foreign policy failures. So far (as of mid-August), none have occurred. (The key doesn’t turn because of strongly critical opinions by a few people, even very knowledgeable people, about certain polices and actions. Broad public perception is what counts.)
  • It was not yet clear a year ago that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the consequent disruption of Al Qaida would be perceived as a major success; now, along with the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya, it does seem to be bringing President Obama substantial credit.

Some commentators have also noted that losing control of the House in 2010 may actually help Obama in 2012 because it spreads the blame and gives him someone else’s record to run against. Choosing Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as the Republican vice-presidential nominee intensifies this effect. Losing control of both houses of Congress in 1994 did not badly damage Bill Clinton’s re-election prospects in 1996.

The Science Behind It

It is worth re-emphasizing that the 13 keys model is based on a statistical pattern recognition algorithm implemented by Russian seismologist Volodia Keilis-Borok. In English-language terminology, the technique most closely resembles kernel discriminant function analysis. The idea is to choose the variable that produces the biggest improvement in prediction, then the variable that adds the most improvement, and so on.

Lichtman and Keilis-Borok considered many other variables that didn’t have much effect: the challenging party’s nomination contest, adverse reports on candidates’ health, running mates, endorsements and massive ad campaigns, among others. 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.

This 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 in little doubt, as the keys model implies, 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:

Voter access, encouragement and discouragement. In several key states, notably Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Republicans are making concerted efforts to tighten requirements, especially with regard to identification documents, for both registration and voting. These restrictions are likely to reduce numbers of votes mostly from poor people, who have problems with transportation to the registrars and to the polls, and from older senior citizens, who more often have expired but not current driver’s licenses. Democrats, in turn, typically organize registration drives and offer rides to the polls in areas they expect to have large numbers of Democratic supporters who are less likely than most to vote unless assisted and encouraged. There are several active court cases about how to achieve the appropriate balance between preventing fraud and facilitating access.

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. Readers of OR/MS Today a few years ago read about operations research-based efforts to improve the process; the concern continues, however, in Ohio and elsewhere.

Vote counting rules. In addition to his work on the keys model, Allan Lichtman has testified as an expert witness in more than 75 cases of alleged wrongdoing in counting votes. In Florida in 2000, he found 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,” he 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 handily. Clearly, counting rules are a continuing issue that will command attention.

Controversy over the fairness and accuracy of vote counting can also produce lasting discontent with the whole political process, as, for example, with the dispute over the 2004 presidential election in Ohio.

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. Targeting appeals to selected groups is a well-known and long-standing (more than 50 years old) campaign method that has had considerable effect, 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.

Base vs. center. Conventional wisdom among political pros is “run to the base for the nomination and to the center for the general election.” This means that in October, the leading candidate spends more and more time in swing states, while the trailing candidate has to keep shoring up his base. Seen in this context, Governor Romney’s choice of a running mate more conservative than he is, and from a geographic region where he would expect to be strong already (his father was a popular governor of Michigan), suggests that he and his senior advisors may already be worried about his prospects.

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 little benefit, is that all the fund-raisers, political consultants and pundits keep telling them they have to. This does generate considerable benefits for the fund-raisers, political consultants and pundits. Eugene Burdick, a political scientist and novelist, pointed out most of the applicable ethical issues in his 1956 and 1964 novels. 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.

Conclusions

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 adverse events, these factors favor President Obama’s re-election, at least in the popular vote, with the massive infusions of cash into TV advertising having 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 (samuelsondoug@yahoo.com), senior INFORMS member and Treasurer, CPMS, is a frequent contributor to Analytics and OR/MS Today, is president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. He 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.

REFERENCES

  1. Burdick, Eugene, 1956, The Ninth Wave, Houghton Mifflin.
  2. Burdick, Eugene, 1964, The 480, McGraw-Hill.
  3. Csetlar, Maralee, July 12, 2010, “Scholar’s ’13 Keys’ Predict Another Obama Win,” www.american.edu/media/news/20100712_Lichtman_Predicts_Obama_Wins_Reelection_2012.cfm
  4. 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.
  5. Lichtman, Allan J., 2008, “The Keys to the White House: A Surefire Guide to Predicting the Next President,” 2008 Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md.
  6. Lichtman, Allan, January 2003, “What Really Happened in Florida’s 2000 Presidential Election,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 32, p. 221.
  7. 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. 7.230-7.234.
  8. Samuelson, Doug, June 2011, “Election 2012: The ’13 Keys’ to the White House,” OR/MS Today.
  9. 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.

Mitt Romney (left) and Barack Obama: a tight battle for the White House.

The 13 keys to the presidency
Professor Allan Lichtman’s 13 keys and his assessment of how they turn:

  1. 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)
  2. The incumbent-party nominee gets at least two-thirds of the vote on the first ballot at the nominating convention. (TRUE)
  3. The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. (TRUE)
  4. There is no third-party or independent candidacy that wins at least five percent of the vote. (TRUE)
  5. The economy is not in recession during the campaign. (TRUE)
  6. Real (constant-dollar) per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth for the preceding two terms. (FALSE)
  7. The administration achieves a major policy change during the term, on the order of the New Deal or the first-term Reagan “revolution.” (TRUE)
  8. There has been no major social unrest during the term, sufficient to cause deep concerns about the unraveling of society. (TRUE)
  9. There is no broad recognition of a scandal that directly touches the president. (TRUE)
  10. 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)
  11. 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. (TRUE)
  12. The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or is a national hero. (FALSE)
  13. The challenger is not charismatic and is not a national hero. (TRUE)

If six or more of these statements are false, the incumbent party loses.

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