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Campaign Watch: The Keys to the White House

Political polls and campaign gimmicks and gaffes may make the headlines. But presidential elections do not work the way the media, the pundits and the pollsters think they do.

I have developed a historically based prediction system founded on the theory that presidential election results turn primarily on the performance of the party controlling the White House and that campaigning by incumbent-party candidates or their challengers will have no impact on results. According to this theory, a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president based on the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term—economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal and policy innovation.

If the nation fares well during the term of the incumbent party, that party wins the popular vote; otherwise, the challenging party prevails. In fact, only once in the last 120 years—in the disputed election of 2000—has the popular vote winner lost in the Electoral College. According to the “Keys to the White House” model I’ve developed, nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign has changed his prospects at the his prospects in the voting booth. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage and campaign strategies count for virtually nothing on Election Day.

These “Keys” were developed in 1981 in collaboration with Russian scientist Volodia Keilis-Borok, an authority on the mathematics of prediction models. The Keys retrospectively account for the popular-vote winners of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980 and forecast the popular-vote winners of all six presidential elections from 1984 through 2004. The Keys model predicted George W. Bush’s reelection in April 2003, nearly a year before any other scientific model. In the late spring of 1988, the Keys predicted George H.W. Bush’s victory when he trailed Democrat Michael Dukakis by 17 percentage points in the polls. It predicted Bill Clinton’s win in the complex three-candidate election of 1992.

Keilis-Borok and I applied the application of pattern recognition methodology used in geophysics to data for American presidential elections beginning in 1860 (the first election with a four-year record of competition between Republicans and Democrats). We developed 13 diagnostic questions that gauge primarily the strength, unity and performance of the party holding the White House.

Only two keys, numbers 12 and 13, relate to qualities of the competing candidates. The keys stated propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer of these propositions are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

No question was included in the analysis unless it improved the capacity of the system to distinguish between incumbent and challenging party. This criterion resulted in the exclusion of about 15 initially proposed questions, including whether the economy is being effected by war, whether the incumbent or challenging candidate is more centrist in policies, whether the incumbent party has held office for more than one term, whether the incumbent party gained more than 50 percent of votes cast in the previous election, and whether the incumbent party is Republican or Democratic.

Unlike many alternative models, the Keys include no polling data, but are based on the big picture of how well the party in power and the country are faring prior to an upcoming election. In addition, the Keys do not presume that voters are driven by economic concerns alone. Voters are less narrow-minded and more sophisticated than that; they decide presidential elections on a wide-ranging assessment of the performance of incumbent parties. The keys reflect that assessment.

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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