The Keys to the White House

Forget the polls. Forget the pundits. Conventional approaches to explaining and predicting American presidential elections are no more reliable than reading tea leaves or bird entrails.

According to the chattering classes, American presidential elections are like horse races. Candidates sprint ahead or fall behind according to the events of the campaign, while the pollsters keep score. All predictions are subject to frequent revision depending on the next poll or, ultimately, the election itself.

And yet it’s governing, not campaigning, that counts in presidential elections. That’s the premise underlying the highly accurate election-prediction system known as the Keys to the White House, which I helped create.

The “keys” are 13 true/false questions. “True” responses favor the re-election of the party currently holding the White House. Five or fewer “false” responses predict the incumbent party will win. Six or more “false” responses predict the challenging party will win.

I developed the Keys to the White House in 1981 with Volodia Keilis-Borok, the head of the Institute of Pattern Recognition in Moscow and a member of both the Russian and the U.S. Academies of Sciences. We created our model by analyzing every American presidential election from 1860, when the voters chose Abraham Lincoln as president — the beginning of the modern Republican vs. Democrat era — to 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan. Our analysis, in other words, spanned the horse-and-buggy, pre-technology days to the modern era of jet planes and television.

The Keys to the White House has correctly forecast the popular-vote winner of all eight presidential elections from 1984 to 2012, doing so in most cases months or even years prior to Election Day, often in contradiction to prevailing polls.

For example, the keys forecast George H. W. Bush’s 1988 victory in the late spring of that year, when Bush trailed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls. In April 2003, the keys correctly predicted the outcome of the difficult-to-call 2004 election, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. In early 2006, the keys forecast a Democratic victory in 2008, long before either major-party nominee had been chosen.

This year’s election posed the keys’ sternest test to date. On the basis of the economy alone, it seemed foolhardy to predict another victory for Barack Obama. Nevertheless, in January 2010 I predicted Obama would win a second term in office.

How did I know? According to the keys, presidential elections turn on the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of that president’s term — economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation. Nothing the candidates say or do during a campaign — when voters discount everything as political — changes their prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage and campaign strategies — the usual grist for punditry mills — count for very little on Election Day.

Since governing, not campaigning, decides presidential elections, the Keys to the White House suggests several realities candidates would do well to remember. First, no party has an enduring hold on the American presidency. Second, political leaders need not move to the ideological center to succeed at the polls. As Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan proved, a strong ideology can guide domestic and foreign policy initiatives that earn the keys needed to retain the White House. Third, candidates would be well-served if they abandoned conventional campaign politics in favor of developing the themes, issues and grassroots support needed for effective governance during their administrations.

Because the keys track the big picture of governance, they do not readily change, which is why I was able to predict Obama’s victory nearly three years ago. In the final call, only three keys fell against the incumbent Democrats, three fewer than the six negative keys that would have predicted the president’s defeat.

The following ten keys favored Obama’s win:

  • The “contest” key: Obama was unchallenged for re-nomination.
  • The “incumbency” key: Obama’s nomination was certain.
  • The “third-party” key: There was no significant third-party challenger.
  • The “short-term economy” key: The United States is in a slow recovery, not an ongoing recession.
  • The “policy change” key: The health-care bill and other liberal measures were enacted during Obama’s first term.
  • The “social unrest” key: There were no sustained violent upheavals, like those of the 1960s.
  • The “scandal” key: No major controversy (comparable to Watergate) directly implicated the president in a significant way.   
  • The “foreign/military failure” key: The president did not suffer a major foreign policy or military failure (comparable to losing the Vietnam War).
  • The “foreign/military success” key: Obama eliminated Osama Bin Laden.
  • The “challenger charisma/hero” key: Republican challenger Mitt Romney lacked the charisma of, say, a Ronald Reagan, giving this key to the Democrats.

The following three keys fell against the incumbent Democratic Party this year:

  • The “mandate” key: The party suffered losses in the 2010 midterm elections.
  • The “long-term economy” key: The economy remained weak during Obama’s term.
  • The “incumbent charisma/hero” key: Obama failed to recapture the magic of his 2008 campaign.

Despite his victory at the polls, Obama in many ways fell victim to the consultants, pollsters and handlers who unfortunately dominate politics in the United States. Instead of presenting a detailed, substantive message that foreshadowed his second-term priorities, the president ran a typical safety-first campaign.

In his second term, Obama would benefit by breaking free of the political hucksters and re-establishing the special mystical bond with the American people that only a president can achieve. He needs to act boldly and forthrightly on the immense problems confronting America. These include not just the economy and the deficit, but also the massive redistribution of income and wealth to the rich and the threat of catastrophic climate change, which may be the most daunting challenge to our survival in human history.

Allan J. Lichtman is the Distinguished Professor of History at American University.