Posted on August 28, 2000 in Washington Watch

“Throw away the polls,” says American University professor Allan Lichtman, who claims to have discovered a sure-fire method to predict the outcome of presidential races.

Instead of looking at polling numbers which show a snapshot of public opinion at a point in time, Lichtman has developed a method of predicting that analyzes macro trends in the economy and the society. He has identified 13 such indicators 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.

Lichtman bases his approach on an analysis of the past 35 presidential contests going back to 1860, and presents his findings in his book, The Keys to the White House, a newly revised edition of which was published just this month.

The 13 Keys are:

  1. Incumbent-party mandate: in the last congressional election, the incumbent party increased its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

  2. Nomination-contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.

  3. Incumbency: The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.

  4. Third party: There is no significant third-part challenge.

  5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession.

  6. Long-term economy: Real annual per-capita economic growth is improving.

  7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

  8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest.

  9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

  10. Foreign or military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

  11. Foreign or military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

  12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

  13. Challenger charisma: The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Based on Lichtman’s analysis, for example, the election of George Bush in 1988 was a certainty, since the Republican Party, which had held the White House for the previous eight years under Ronald Reagan, could claim 10 of the 13 Keys in 1988.

The only three that counted against Bush were:

Key #3.–The incumbent, Reagan, was not the candidate;

Key #7.–There had been no significant policy change in the past four years–all of Reagan’s major initiatives came in his first term; and

Key #12.–Bush, the Republican candidate, was not charismatic.

By 1992, despite Bush’s significant early leads in the polls and his popularity resulting from the Gulf War victory, the 13 Keys predicted his defeat to challenger Bill Clinton. By 1992, Bush could only count seven keys in his favor. According to Lichtman, Bush lost:

Key #1.–Republicans lost seats in the 1990 election;

Key #4.–The Perot third-party challenge was a significant one;

Keys 5. & 6.–The economy was in recession;

Key #7.–There had been no big policy change; and

Key #12.–Bush was still not a charismatic candidate.

Now, to the election at hand. Using the model laid out in the “13 Keys”, Al Gore, the candidate of the incumbent party, faces a very difficult set of challenges to retain the White House for the Democrats.

Polls now show Gore in the lead, since he received a significant boost at his successful convention in Los Angeles. Early indications are that Gore’s post-convention performance has also been quite positively received, giving him hopes of being in the lead in early September. Recent history suggests that the candidate in the lead in September has the best chance of winning in November.

Despite all of this, Lichtman’s analysis finds that as of now Gore can only count on seven of the 13 keys–one short of victory.

Democrats won more House seats in 1998 (Key #1) and Gore faced no serious challenge in winning the nomination beating Bill Bradley in every state contest (Key #2). Gore also wins the two keys for the economy (Key #5 and Key #6). Finally there is no major social upheaval in the United States (Key #9), and the United States suffered no major military or foreign defeat during the past four years (Keys #10) and Gore’s challenger is not a charismatic national hero (Key #13).

    That’s the good news for Gore. On the problem side of the equation, he loses: Key #3–The candidate is not the incumbent President;

Key #7–There was no new major policy change in the past four years;

Key #9–There was an ongoing scandal; and

Key #12–Gore is also not a charismatic national hero.

This leaves Keys #4 and #11, one of which, according to Lichtman, Gore must win in order to be assured of victory.

As of now, Key #11, winning a military or foreign victory seems unlikely–unless the President is able to meet Palestinian basic needs and make a sudden breakthrough in the peace talks. There appears to be no other setting for a foreign victory on the horizon.

The final Key, #4, is therefore, according to Lichtman, the decisive factor. Since there are two substantial third party campaigns, those of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, for Gore to win, they must either cancel each other out–by taking votes equally from the Republican and Democratic parties’ candidates–or they must both shrink to under five percent. If Nader, who threatens to take his votes mainly from the Democrats, wins over five percent and, does significantly better than Buchanan, than Gore, in his analysis, loses the 4th Key and the election.

In recent polls, Nader is down to five percent, a good sign for Gore. If Nader improves, says Lichtman, Gore’s chance are diminished.

The Challenge for Gore therefore, is to maintain his post-convention populist campaign defining sharp differences between his campaign and that of George W. Bush. He must also convince potential Nader supporters that a vote for Nader increases the chances of Republicans taking the White House. During the past week, that effort showed signs of success. Whether it continues through November is the big question.

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