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Campaign Watch: The Keys to the White House

Answers to the questions posed in the model require the kinds of judgments that historians typically make about the past. But the judgments are constrained by explicit definitions of each key. For example, a contested incumbent party nomination is defined as one in which the losing candidates—combined—secured at least one-third of the delegate votes. Judgments are also constrained by how individual keys have been assessed in all 37 previous elections covered by the system. For example, to qualify as charismatic and turn key 12 or 13—the most judgmental of all keys—an incumbent or challenging-party candidate must measure up to Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. The system is also extremely robust: The same keys that predicted Abraham Lincoln’s victory over Stephen Douglas in 1860 also predicted George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004, despite vast changes in American politics, society, demographic composition and economic life.

The Keys also have profound implications for presidential politics in the United States. If candidates understood that governance, not campaigning, counts in elections, we would have a chance to break America’s endless cycle of empty, scripted, consultant-driven campaigns. Candidates could fire the hucksters, speak from the heart to the American people and advance their vision of the future. They could also use the campaign to develop the grassroots support needed to advance their policies during the next four years.

Allan Lichtman is a history professor at American University. He has written six books. His most recent books areThe Keys to the White House: 2008 Edition and White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.

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