Posted on April 04, 2016 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby

This year's presidential contest has proven to be both fascinating and, at times, frightening. Both parties are engaged in near existential struggles. In an effort to get the long view of the dynamics at work in this contest, last week, I hosted Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University, on my weekly NYU TV show "Viewpoint". Always an interesting guest, Lichtman is the author of "The Keys to the White House" which lays out his proven method of predicting the winners in presidential elections.

Hosting Lichtman is a quadrennial "must" for me and I have made a point of inviting him to join me on my show in the lead up to every election since 1996. With this year's contest looking like a "wild ride" all the way to November, I was eager to hear his analysis.

Lichtman often begins his discussion with the admonition to “throw away the polls and ignore the pundits”. Instead of looking at polling numbers which show a snapshot of public opinion at a point in time or listening to the pundits whose predictions are largely based on guess work, Lichtman has developed a method of prediction that analyzes macro trends in the economy and the society.

Lichtman developed his model in 1981 basing it on an analysis of presidential contests going back to 1860 and he has been using it to correctly call the results of every race since 1984.  

He has identified 13 indicators that define the contours of the political landscape and calls them his “13 Keys.” According to Lichtman, if the incumbent party (that is, the political party that is currently in the White House) can claim eight of the 13 Keys, than they can be assured of victory in the next election. Holding less than eight keys means that the political setting is so hostile to the incumbent party that the victory is impossible.


The “13 Keys” are:


1) The Incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the last midterm election than it did after the previous midterm election;

2) The incumbent party has no real contest for the presidential nomination;

3) The incumbent party's candidate is the sitting president;

4) There is no real third-party (threatening the incumbent party); 

5) The short-term economy is not in recession;

6) In the long-term, per capita economic growth is improving;

7) The incumbent Administration effected major policy changes in the past four years;

8) There is no major social unrest;

9) The incumbent Administration is untainted by major scandal;

10) There have been no major military or foreign policy failures in the past four years;

11) There was a major military or foreign policy success during the past four years;

12) The presidential candidate of the incumbent party is charismatic or a national hero; and

13) The challenger is not charismatic and not a national hero.


As Lichtman analyzes each of these keys, he concludes that, at this point, Democrats can comfortably claim only seven of the keys. (4) if there is a serious third-party challenge, it will come from the right. (5) the short-term economy shows no sign of going into recession. (6) on the macro level, over the long-term, per capita income has been rising (although it has been stagnant for 80% of the population). (8) despite the rise of the Tea Party and the "Black Lives Matter" movements, there is not the level of social unrest we witnessed during the Great Depression or with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. (9) the President has not been implicated in any major scandals like the Tea Pot Dome or Watergate scandals (and while Hillary Clinton still has the email issue hanging over her head, Lichtman thinks it unlikely that the Department of Justice will indict her). (10) the Administration has suffered no major foreign policy defeat. (12) none of the GOP candidates can be considered charismatic or a national hero.

On the negative side, Democrats can expect to lose at least four of the keys. (1) they held less seats in the Congress after the 2014 election than they held after the 2010 midterm contest. (3) Obama is not running for reelection. (7) while the Administration won major domestic victories in its first term, they have been forced to spend the last three years on the defensive. (12) Lichtman doesn't see either of the Democratic candidates as charismatic national heroes.

For Lichtman, this election comes down to keys (2) and (11). A year ago, it was assumed that Hillary Clinton would easily win the Democratic nomination, but challenger Bernie Sanders has made it a real race and appears positioned to take the contest all the way to the convention. According to Lichtman, unless Clinton can sew up the nomination soon and win with two-thirds of the vote, Democrats might well lose this key. As for (11), while the Administration will, with some justification, claim the environment pact with China, the completion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and the opening to Cuba as victories, these "successes": have been controversial, have not gained substantial traction with US public opinion, and, to some degree, they have been overshadowed by the unraveling of Libya, the continuing bloodshed in Syria, the Russian occupation of Crimea, and the rise of ISIS.

Lichtman notes that it is this last key may be the Democrats' best chance to secure the eighth key they need to win the White House. But to turn this key in their favor they must, before November, either resolve one of the still unresolved crises, listed above, or do a better job of convincing the public that the agreements with China, the TPP, Iran, and Cuba are the victories they claim them to be.

A cautionary note: while some dismiss the "13 Keys" as gimmicky, Lichtman's analysis has been right in every election since he designed his method in 1981. But, more than that, because it focuses on the macro trends that define the political, economic, and social landscape, it provides a useful tool with which to understand the dynamics at work in this election year.    


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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