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The 13 Keys that Unlock the White House

November 22, 2011

There have been a number of fascinating articles on election forecasting published in ‘Foresight’, the magazine of the International Institute of Forecasters. Of these, perhaps one of the most accessible is that associated with the name of Professor Allan J. Lichtman. Lichtman’s unique approach to political forecasting revolves around what he terms the ‘The Thirteen Keys to the White House’, a historically based model that is both simple and seemingly successful. The theory underpinning the “Keys” is that the result of a US Presidential election turns almost entirely on the performance of the party controlling the White House. There are 13 keys, each of which Lichtman assesses as either true or false. When five or fewer keys are false, the candidate of the incumbent party will win. When six or more are false, the candidate of the challenging party will win. Key 1 is ‘Party mandate’ (“After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the US House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections”). In fact, the party of the incumbent President (the Republicans) lost seats in 2006, so this is FALSE. Key 2 is ‘Contest’ (“There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination”). I don’t think Mitt Romney would agree with this. I would mark this as FALSE. Key 3 is ‘Incumbency’ (“The incumbent party candidate is the sitting President”). FALSE. Key 4 is ‘Third Party’ (“There is no significant third-party or independent campaign”). With all due respect to Ralph Nader and Bob Barr, I think we can say TRUE to this. Key 5 is ‘Short-term economy’ (“The economy is not in recession during the election campaign”). I think we can reasonably assign this to the FALSE column. Key 6 is ‘Long-term economy’ (Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.) FALSE. Key 7 is ‘Policy Change’ (“The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy”). Economic crisis measures apart, I think it’s reasonable to mark this as FALSE. Key 8 is ‘Social Unrest’ (“There is no sustained social unrest during the term”). TRUE. Key 9 is ‘Scandal’ (“The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal”). Some scandalous things have happened under Bush’s watch, to be sure, but we can mark this in the sense meant as broadly TRUE. Key 10 is ‘Foreign/military failure’ (“The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs”). FALSE, in spades. Key 11 is ‘Foreign/military success’ (“The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs”). Well, the ‘surge’ had some success, to the benefit of McCain. Let’s be generous to the Republicans and tick it in the TRUE column. Key 12 is ‘Incumbent charisma’ (“The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero”). McCain was shot down during the Vietnam war, captured and hailed as a war hero. Let’s be generous again and mark him down as a TRUE national hero. Key 13 is ‘Challenger charisma’ (“The incumbent-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero”). Obama not charismatic? FALSE. Of course, it’s possible to disagree with a couple of the way I’ve marked these keys but whichever way you cut it, this adds up to six or more FALSE statements, which in turn adds up to a win for the Democrats. And so another success is chalked up for Professor Lichtman and his famous keys! And for the Betfair markets which never once wavered in pointing to a Democratic victory.



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