Posted on October 11, 2008 in Washington Watch

Back in 1981, American University Professor Alan Lichtman discovered a sure-fire method of predicting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections.

Instead of relying on polling data, which only present a snapshot of public opinion, at a moment in time, Lichtman developed a method of prognostication based on analysis of macro-level trends that define the political landscape. He identified thirteen such indicators, and called them “The Thirteen Keys to the White House.”

Lichtman based his 1981 paper on an analysis of every presidential U.S. election since 1860, and, since 1984 he has used his “Thirteen Keys” to correctly predict every U.S. presidential contest, getting even the closest ones right. According to Lichtman, to win the White House, the incumbent party (that is, the party that currently holds the office of the President) must hold at least eight of the thirteen keys. Less than eight means that the political setting is so hostile to the incumbent party, that the victory is impossible.

What follows are the thirteen keys and an assessment as to whether or not the Republicans can claim the requisite eight they will need to win (a “yes” means that they get that particular key, a “no” means they do not.)

1)Incumbent-party mandate: “In the last congressional election, the incumbent party increased its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
(NO – Democrats won more seats in the 2006 mid-term elections, and now hold more seats in Congress than they did after the previous mid-term contest in 2002.)

2)Nomination-contest: “There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.”
(YES – While McCain faced tough opposition early-on, he won handily and unified his party by its convention.)

3)Incumbency: “The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.”
(NO – McCain is not Bush, despite the efforts of Democrats to tie his policies to the current Administration.)

4)Third party: “There is no significant third-party challenge.”
(YES – This election has no candidate like Ross Perot who is capable of winning a significant percentage of the overall vote. The two main independent candidates in 2008 – Ralph Nader and Bob Barr – will get a combined total about 5% of the vote and probably draw equally from both McCain and Obama, or win support from those who otherwise would not have voted.)

5)Short-term economy: “The economy is not in recession.”
(YES? – There has been a meltdown on Wall Street. While economists define a recession as two consecutive quarters of falling gross national product, and this is not yet the case, certainly the mood of the American body politic has soured.)

6)Long-term economy: “Real annual per-capita growth is improving.”
(NO – Real per-capita economic growth is not improving.)

7)Policy change: “The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.”
(NO – In its’ last term, the Bush Administration has not effected any major changes in national policy.)

8)Social Unrest: “There is no sustained social unrest.”
(YES – There is real public concern: only 11% believe the country is on the “right track” and Bush’s approval rating languishes at 22%; but there is no “sustained unrest” – as there was, for example, in the 1960s.)

9)Scandal: “The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.”
(YES – There are problems, to be sure, but there has been no Watergate-level investigation, or Iran-Contra hearings, or impeachment proceedings.)

10) Foreign or military failure: “The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.”
(Tossup – The Bush Administration is still stuggling in both Iraq Afghanistan, and has failed at Israeli-Palestinian peace-making – but they have not suffered a Vietnam-style defeat, either.)

11) Foreign or military success: “The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.”
(NO – There have been no victory parades.)

12) Incumbent charisma: “The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.”
(YES ? – By “hero,” Lichtman means a national war-time leader who led the nation to victory – like Eisenhower or Grant. McCain is not that, but his personal story, as a prisoner-of-war, is compelling for many Americans.)

13) Challenger charisma: “The challenging-party is not charismatic or a national hero.”
(NO ? – To the same degree that McCain’s story works for his supporters, Obama’s charisma is a powerful draw for his. This may account for McCain’s last-ditch effort to tarnish Obama’s image and character. But in the end, while neither of these two candidates fit Lichtman’s exact definitions of “hero,” neither are they Bush or Gore or Kerry – and so it is a draw.)

It appears clear, from this application of Lichtman’s analysis, that even in the best-case scenario for John McCain – giving him key #5, key #10 and key #12 – the GOP candidate would still win only seven of the keys and, therefore, not enough to keep the White House in Republican hands.

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