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.
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.
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.