Features Editor Ishaan Rahman interviews Professor Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted every US presidential race since 1984 with a unique method
In November last year, Americans voted in yet another tense presidential race. Most polls and pundits were confident in a decisive win for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But election night did not go to plan. While Biden eventually emerged victorious, President Donald Trump significantly over performed expectations securing wins in several key battleground states. This is the third election in a row in which polls had been significantly off: they previously underestimated President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects and infamously predicted a landslide for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Professor Allan Lichtman, who teaches modern American history and quantitative methods at American University in Washington D.C., came up with an alternative method for predicting elections in the early 1980s. Since then, he has successfully foreseen the winner of every presidential race. And yes, that includes Donald Trump’s shock win four years ago.
Lichtman’s method is unorthodox; it does not rely on polling data nor take into account campaign politics, such as gaffes or debates. Instead, through his research, he came to the conclusion that voters make their choices based on how the incumbent party has governed the country. His model, The Keys to the White House, predicts elections outcomes based on 13 true or false statements, or ‘keys’, of governance. If six or more keys are false, the incumbent party loses the election.
Roar sat down for a conversation with Professor Lichtman to ask him about his prediction method, the Joe Biden presidency and what concerns he has for the future.
You’re most famous for your 13 Keys prediction method. What led you to the conclusion that governance, not campaign politics, decides elections?
“Yes, the startling but positive conclusion of The Keys is that governing not campaigning counts. I know that would put a lot of my friends out of business, but it’s a very uplifting result for the American people. Now, I came about this by a rather circuitous route. I would love to tell you I came up with this system from years of brilliant contemplation but, to quote the late, no-so-great [President Richard] Nixon ‘that would be wrong’. I came across The Keys, at least in-part, by accident.”
It was in 1981 that Lichtman met a Russian geophysicist, specialising in earthquakes, Vladimir Keilis-Borok. Keilis-Borok suggested applying methods used to predict earthquakes to US Presidential contests and their collaboration began. “We became the odd couple of political research” Lichtman said.
Lichtman’s belief that governance not campaigning decides elections was not proven at the time. Though his study of the 1896 Election, where William McKinley defeated the “maverick, populist” Democratic candidate William Jennings-Bryan, began to confirm his hunch.
“Bryan was the great campaigner of his time. He stumped the country [while] McKinley was stuck in the mud running a front porch campaign from his home. Yet McKinley still beat Bryan because, as much [Bryan] out-campaigned McKinley he was still stuck with the Democratic depression”
At the time, America was grappling with economic downturn under Democratic President Grover Cleveland. His poor governance gave McKinley, a Republican, the win in the election. So stellar campaigning and populist messaging could not compensate for a failed Presidency, Lichtman theorised. But it was Keilis-Borok’s expertise on earthquakes that gave rise to The Keys.
“The other big insight was to reconceptualise presidential elections in earthquake terms. Not as Carter vs. Reagan, liberal vs. conservative or Democrat vs. Republican but as stability, where the [incumbent] party keeps control, and earthquake, when the party is turned out of office”
Lichtman and Keilis-Borok then looked at every presidential election from 1860 to 1980 and, using pattern recognition techniques from earthquake science, came up with the current Keys to the White House which gauged the re-election prospects of the incumbent party based on thirteen factors.
The 13 keys include many aspects of governance including the performance of the economy, foreign policy successes and failures, major scandals, social unrest and the extent of policy changes. However, a candidate’s charisma, Midterm Election performance and whether a candidate is the incumbent President also play a role.
If six of more keys go against the incumbent party, or in other words are deemed ‘false’, they are predicted to lose the election as happened in 1896. In 2016 there were seven false keys, meaning that the incumbent party at the time, the Democratic Party, would lose the next election, resulting in Trump’s upset win. Likewise, in 2020, the incumbent Republican Party had seven false keys resulting in their loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November that year.
The Keys judge election results based on governance. In 2020, many emphasised Biden’s appeal amongst rust-belt voters or Trump’s polarising personality that handed Democrats the win. Your model would actually suggest that it had nothing to do with the candidates but simply the Coronavirus economic crash, is that right?
“Absolutely correct. You know Democrats would love to say it’s our great candidate, it’s our wonderful issues that carried us. They all had those same issues, you know four years ago and they still lost. Its governance not campaigning that counts as much as that may bruise the ego of candidates and political operatives. A very close friend of mine, I’ve known him for over 50 years, is Robert Shrub…until recently he was the leading Democratic consultant. And when I first came up with the keys back in 1981 I gave them to Robert Shrub and he calls me back a few days later. And he said ‘Lichtman I hate The Keys, find your crazy Russian friend again and redo them and come up with something I can manipulate’. The Keys are not manipulable.”
So there’s an inevitability to presidential contests despite all the nervous anticipation on election night. Presidential elections are immune to dirty tactics and partisan scandals and are only impacted by genuine issues of governance. In 2020, it was not Trump’s personal unpopularity that led his party to defeat, but the economic downturn due to the Coronavirus pandemic; a rather simple explanation. Prior to the pandemic, Trump only had four keys against him, meaning he was headed for a successful re-election despite a myriad of controversies. Though with the Coronavirus recession and social unrest from Black Lives Matter protests, a further three keys were turned ‘false’, which Lichtman called “an unprecedented reversal of fortune”.
Lichtman admits that this model has put him at odds with many in his field. He has gotten into rather public quarrels with the statistician Nate Silver. Silver founded FiveThirtyEight a website that uses conventional polling data to predict elections. Though he has drawn some praise, Silver’s model gave Hillary Clinton an over 70% chance of defeating Trump in the 2016 Election, which was quite off the mark. In 2010, Silver took issue with Lichtman’s early prediction of the 2012 Election between Obama and Mitt Romney.
“I saw things were going well enough for Obama that I made my call that he would be re-elected and that was a very tough election to call as you know down to the wire the polls were showing Romney winning. I made my 2012 Election call back in 2010, which caused Nate Silver to write a twenty page attack on The Keys, saying ‘you can’t predict this early’. My response was ‘YOU can’t predict using polls’…[Silver’s] a publicity hound, he’s not one of my favourite people…he was horribly wrong in 2016 and 2020″
In November 2012, Obama was re-elected by an unexpectedly large margin over Romney. This is another example of The Keys going against the consensus among political pundits.
Given that The Keys put little emphasis on the candidate’s characteristics, what do you make of the debate within the Democratic Party as to whether they should nominate moderates or progressives?
“If there was one word I would eliminate from political discussion, well there are a couple of them, but among the words I would eliminate from political discussion is ‘electability’. That is the most misleading concepts because The Keys show that unless you’re a John F Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the candidate comes around, you know, once in a generation the, candidate doesn’t matter.
“There’s no such thing as electability. You know Biden the moderate wins, right? So the convention was all ‘you need to be a moderate’. Well, Clinton the moderate lost. [John] Kerry, the moderate lost. Al Gore the moderate lost…What I always tell voters is vote for who you believe in. Never vote on electability because that’s a trap.”
So according to Lichtman, Democrats should stop focusing on the ideology of their candidate and more on governance. It’s worth noting that The Keys pointed to the same 2020 Election outcome whether Joe Biden, a relative moderate, was the Democratic candidate or if a self-described “democratic socialist” like Bernie Sanders was. This despite the fact that Biden frequently touted his unique ability to defeat Trump in the General Election.
The only personal characteristics The Keys take into account are the charisma of both the incumbent party and challenger candidate. If a candidate’s charisma appeals to a broad range of voters, it works in their favour. Though this is rare; Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are the only candidates since the 1980s to have had this key turned ‘true’. As Lichtman mentioned, classic examples of ‘charismatic’ candidates include John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.
Lichtman had a similar attitude to divisions within the Republican Party even though many commentators argued that Trump alienated moderate, suburban voters. The Keys would actually suggest that whether Republicans nominate Trump or someone else in 2024, their chances depend on Biden’s record in office, not on their candidate. That is, unless they find an inspirational, “charismatic” candidate that The Keys recognise. Though that is unlikely, Lichtman believes.
However, Lichtman explains that Presidential elections are unique and that voter outreach, to moderates, ethnic minorities and other groups can play a role in Congressional and other elections.
“One of the interesting things was Biden did well with suburban voters. Yes, that’s true. But why did Democrats take such a beating in suburban districts in the House [of Representatives]? Presidential elections, another message of the keys, are unique. They are unlike any other type of election. The conventional wisdom doesn’t recognise that, which is why Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon would win huge landslides, you know 60% of the vote, but not win the Houses of Congress.”
President Reagan was re-elected in 1984 winning 49 out of the 50 states; calling it a landslide would be an understatement. Despite this, his Republican Party lost seats in Senate and did not come close to winning control of the House of Representatives. This is the disconnect that Lichtman speaks of between presidential and down-ballot races.
One of the 13 keys is ‘Major Policy Change’, a particularly challenging key for Presidents to achieve. Do you think that President Biden has made the necessary policy changes to benefit him and his party in the next election?
“This is a hard key to achieve but actually polarised politics makes it easier to achieve as we see with Biden. Everything that Trump did he’s overturned. So he’s already achieved the policy change game…bringing us back into the climate accords, overturning so many executive orders on the environment, on immigration, passing with not a single Republican vote this $1.9 trillion [American Rescue Plan] bill.”
Biden accomplishing major policy change in the first two months of his Presidency is impressive. Presidents, such as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, failed to make substantial enough changes in eight years, according to The Keys. Though large divides between Democrats and Republicans on climate change action, immigration reform and, recently, Covid-19, make major policy changes easier. It’s worth noting that policy changes benefit the incumbent party regardless of if they are popular. Even controversial legislation such as Obamacare and President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts turned this key ‘true’. Lichtman also had something to say on the next election.
“I’m gonna give you a big secret. Everyone’s talking about Biden being a one-term President. The guy’s even older than me and I’m as old as dust. However, if the Democrats want to win again in 2024, The Keys say their best bet is to renominate Biden. Again, totally counterintuitive as The Keys always are. But here’s why. One the keys is incumbency, you win the incumbency you lose it otherwise. Another key is internal party battles, there’s not going to be a big internal battle against a sitting President but if Biden doesn’t run, Kamala Harris is not just gonna to walk into the nomination, there’s gonna be a big battle.”
This is another example of the The Keys bucking the conventional wisdom. Many have said that Biden’s age would disadvantage his party if he were to seek a second-term. Vice President Kamala Harris is widely believed to be eyeing the Democratic nomination in 2024 and others have also expressed interest. However, if the economy remains strong and no major scandal arises, the Democrats led by Joe Biden would have around 9-10 keys in their favour, more than enough to be re-elected. Lichtman clearly stated that he’s not making a prediction this early though.
Lastly, you have said that foreign interference and voter suppression can disrupt an election result, meaning it could give a different outcome than the The Keys predict. Do you think that misinformation, foreign or domestic, and strict voting laws being implemented could subvert the next election?
“Voters are smart. They’re not tricked, they’re not fooled, they’re not swindled. They understand what’s going on in the country. Voters understood in 2020 the disastrous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our economic wellbeing. They understood the failures of the [Trump] administration to address racial injustice and none of the tricks of the campaign really penetrated through that. But what does worry me would be if foreign adversaries actually meddled with the voting processes or the voting results that could just change everything. ”
Lichtman believes that voters have “triumphed” over misinformation in recent elections. While large minorities of Americans do believe in discredited conspiracy theories and the FBI confirmed that Russia interfered in US elections, he says that, ultimately, it is not enough to sway large-scale presidential contests. Though he still cites concerns about interference and misinformation and believes much more should be done about it.
On the issue of voter suppression affecting Presidential elections, Lichtman’s tone is similar even as Republican-controlled states enact Jim Crow-esque voting laws.
“I am certainly concerned about [voter suppression] but do I think it will change The Keys? No. But do I think it’s likely to affect other elections? We saw a lot of [House of Representatives] elections were decided by six votes in one case…and so I am very much worried about voter suppression effecting all elections but presidential races. I think the tides are probably too big though we’ll have to see how devastating this voter suppression is. Now, there is a flip side to voter suppression and that is it sparks a backlash. Minority leaders like Stacey Abrams use voter suppression to get out the minority vote.”
Georgia politician Stacey Abrams led a successful effort to register black and minority voters in her state. She has been widely credited for President Biden’s victory in Georgia as well as the election of two Democratic senators.
However, one glaring example of voter suppression is the 2000 Election. At the time, Lichtman’s Keys pointed in favour of Democratic candidate Al Gore defeating Republican George W. Bush. Though after a contentious recount in Florida and a Supreme Court ruling, Bush was declared the winner. Lichtman argues that voter suppression played a role in Bush’s win, a claim that has been credited with research.
Overall, the once rejected Keys to the White House have become something rare in political punditry: reliable. Lichtman’s record is impressive by any measure and his method has been able to withstand vast changes in the political landscape since the 1980s, including technology, partisanship and foreign meddling. In an era of political turbulence, The Keys not only make a good companion for predicting but also remind us what truly matters to voters when they make their choice.
Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.