Keys to White House

I conclude the 2020 election forecasting series with Allan Lichtman’s Keys to the White House.  Lichtman developed a system for predicting the winner of presidential contests based several criteria that reflect how well the party in control of the White House has governed the country. 

In short, if voters are pleased with the incumbent party, then its four more years.  Like other theories, Lichtman assumes presidential races do not turn on events in the campaign, but primarily on the strength and performance of the party controlling the White House.  And to prove it, Lichtman accurately predicted several outcomes well in advance of the election.        

The keys

Lichtman developed 13 threshold conditions (keys) that if true favor the re-election of the party holding the White House.   For example, key number 4 is phrased “The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.”  If true, this helps the incumbent; if false, the opposition party benefits.       

When five or less keys are false, the incumbent party wins.  If six or more keys are false, the opposition party wins. 

2020 prediction

The first four keys reflect the popularity of the incumbent party 

Key #1.  Incumbent party mandate:  After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm.   
False:  Republicans lost 48 House seats – 2014 midterm GOP had 247 seats after 2018 midterm 199.   

Key #2.  Nomination Contest:  There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. 
True:  Trump faced no serious challenges in Primaries.

Key #3.  Incumbency: The sitting president is running for re-election.
True:  Trump wants another 4 years.    

Key #4.  Third Party: There is no major third party or independent campaign.
True:  unlikely for Libertarians to secure more than 5% of the vote.   

Keys 5 and 6 economic performance

Key #5.  Short-Term Economy: The economy is not in recession during the campaign season. 
False:  A recession was declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research on June 8. GDP fell 31% in second quarter and current unemployment rate is nearly 8%.      

Key #6.  Long-Term Economy: Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the two previous terms. 
False:  When GDP collapsed in the second quarter of 2020, this dropped the average GDP growth for Trump’s term below the average of Obama’s previous two terms.    

Keys 7-9 National Policy

Key #7.  Policy Change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
True:  Trump passed significant tax cuts – Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017  and executed several important executive orders

Key #8.  Social Unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the campaign.
False:  The killing of George Floyd led to widespread and persistent protests and riots around the country.     

Key #9.  Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandals.
False:  Trump is only the third president to be impeached and several associates/staff have been arrested, indicted and some even jailed. 

Keys 10 and 11 Foreign and Military Policy.

Key #10.  Foreign or Military Failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
True:  no battlefield defeats or loss of significant power internationally. 

Key #11.  Foreign or Military Success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
False:  Significant foreign policy/military successes have eluded Trump. 

Keys 12 and 13 candidate characteristics   

Key #12.  Incumbent Charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
False:  Trump is a showman, but the appeal does not meet the definition of charismatic.    

Key #13.  Challenger Charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
True:  Biden is personable, and noted for charm and affability, but not charismatic.      

Seven keys are false – thus Biden wins.    


Lichtman accurately predicted the winner of presidential elections since 1984 – including 2016.  So, the history Professor from American University is 9 for 9 – batting 1000.  Cannot beat those results.      

However, specific keys are vague, difficult to assess, and demand that Lichtman define terms like ‘charisma’ and policy ‘success’.  For example, Lichtman says that while Trump is a showman, he is not charismatic.  Lichtman defines a charismatic candidate as one that appeals to large groups of voters outside of his or her party’s usual coalition.  He uses Trump’s approval ratings as evidence: “You can’t call a candidate stuck in that range, appealing only to a minority, a charismatic candidate.” 

This sounds like popularity – the state of being liked, admired, or supported by a large number of people.  By this logic, GW Bush and GHW Bush were charismatic figures as both enjoyed historically high presidential approval ratings – GHW near 90% which remained around 70% for months.          

Charismatic is defined as a person who possess special traits that attract, inspire, or fascinate other people.   According to Lichtman, Barack Obama did not meet this definition.  What level, then, of public approval, cross-party support, or inspiration, is required to be labeled charismatic?  It seems only Lichtman knows. 

Similarly, key 6 refers to “real per capita economic growth during the term”.  Does the incumbent’s term include the first 3 years only, or the additional 3 quarters of the election year as well?  It matters in Trump’s case, as average GDP growth in his first three years was higher than Obama’s 8 year average.  In that instance, the key would be true not false. 

However, unprecedented negative growth characterized the first two quarters in 2020 (-5% and -31.4%) and estimates for the third quarter shatter quarterly records with a + 35.2 increase.  That still leaves the 2020 average GDP growth in the red.  A clear definition of presidential ‘term’ is needed from Lichtman.  First 3 years or first 3 years and 3 quarters. 

Likewise, key #11 presents problems.  How to define a major foreign policy success?  Even Trump’s fiercest critics acknowledge important foreign-policy successes notably China and the Middle East.  Evidently, neither rises to the level of ‘major’ successes.                     

Finally, it is important to remember that Lichtman’s theory about presidential elections centers on the party holding the White House.  Only key #13 focuses on the challenger.  In this respect, Lichtman insists that Trump’s defeat has “nothing to do with Joe Biden whatsoever.”   Rather, November 2020 is a vote for or against Trump, or generally any incumbent president.

Don’t waste time discussing Biden’s moderation, elect-ability, or VP choice.  All of it is non-sense to Lichtman.  The keys to the White House are about the performance of the incumbent party.  Its that simple.      

5 thoughts on “Keys to White House

  1. Very interesting n your criticisms of the criteria seem to be appropriate. The model works the question is whether it is totally Lichtman depend.
    Perhaps some criteria looking at popularity vs decisive


  2. I have enjoyed this series on models and it made me wonder about the role of campaigns. That is, if so much of the vote can be determined before the election and without really taking campaign strategies into consideration what is the role of campaigns? I suppose campaigning matters as a part of course or tradition. This is how it has always been done? I once convinced myself that campaigns matter because they can affect a small proportion of the vote and if the US is a 50-50 nation then that 1% that a campaign might influence really, really matters. Right? (I think I stole that idea from somewhere but can’t remember the citation).

    I also thought it was curious that the historian’s model was the one that had the most “politics” in it (as opposed to economic indicators like GDP or RDI) but also had the most subjectivity built into it. Like you point out, many of his dichotomies are arguable one way or another.


    1. Hey Alex, thanks for reading and the comments. Yes, this has always been a lingering and important question for me as well — do campaigns even matter? In many ways they do not. They have an important symbolic purpose in our democracy, and that should not be ignored or depreciated in any way. In fact the entire process can – and often does – generate significant support for our system. Indeed, elections are not just important to citizens – voters- who have a chance to participate and recognize their preferences matter. But the larger system itself is sustained by campaigns and voter participation. In this respect, campaigns are “system supporting” devices that reinforce the status quo. Moreover, campaigns move voters toward the Election Day vote distributions which are determined by larger economic and political forces — that can be predicted before the campaign starts. So without the campaign, it is not clear whether voters would ever reach the “enlightened preferences” state that Gelman and King identify about a week or two before Election Day (see the post: Election Polls and Prediction).

      I do think Nate Silver would strongly support your assertion that campaigns are about influencing that undecided proportion, that small percentages of people that can be influenced. Clearly, that group appears smaller than ever this election cycle. But, again, elections also serve a valuable purpose of reinforcing people’s beliefs, hardening their core values, and creating enough energy for people to go out and vote.


  3. “Charismatic is defined as a person who possess special traits that attract, inspire, or fascinate other people. According to Lichtman, Barack Obama did not meet this definition. ”

    He DID give Obama the charisma key — in 2008, but not 2012. Reagan got the charisma key in 1984 but not for his first win in 1980.


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