Yesterday, this story made a bit of a splash with political news nerds like — well — like you and me!
President Obama is “guaranteed” to win re-election in 2012, according to Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Lichtman’s formula predicts the outcome of the popular vote without considering candidate opinion polls, campaign strategies or political events.
Lichtman’s system is based on 13 political conditions that he calls “keys.” The keys favor the incumbent president’s party: When five or fewer of them are false, the incumbent party wins the presidency. If six or more are false, the opposition party wins.
…Only four of the 13 keys (outlined here) are currently in the “false” column for President Obama. Counting against him are the facts that he has not achieved a major foreign policy victory, that his party will lose seats in the House of Representatives, and that per-capita economic growth does not exceed the two previous presidential terms. “True” keys include: there is no serious contest for the Democratic Party nomination, Obama has not presided over a major foreign policy failure, and his administration has achieved “major changes in national policy.”
At this point, you may be going, “Who’s Lichtman and what the hell are the 13 keys?”
Allan Lichtman wrote a book back in 1992 called the Thirteen Keys to the Presidency. The book goes back through history, analyzes every political race, and tries to pick out key factors that, in combination, will lead to victory and defeat in every case.
Here’s an article (slightly edited) that does a good job of breaking it all down,
The statements below favor re-election of the incumbent party.
When five or fewer statements are false, the incumbent party wins the popular vote. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
1. After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections.
2. There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. (Lichtman defines a serious contest as one that is not decided before the party’s convention.)
3. The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
4. There is no significant third-party or independent campaign. (A significant third-party candidate is one with a realistic chance of getting 5 percent or more of the popular vote.)
5. The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
6. Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
7. The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
8. There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
9. The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. (A major scandal is one in which the president is personally implicated, for example Watergate or the Clinton impeachment.)
10. The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
11. The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
12. The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. (National hero is defined as an individual who successfully leads a nation through war)
13. The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
First off, you may be asking: Is there anything to this? The answer: Yes, there is. This list of factors can be used to correctly predict the outcome of every presidential election in history.
That being said, let me give you a caveat: What I think of as the “Nostradamus effect” tends to come into play here. By that, I mean, there’s a tendency on Lichtman’s part to see what actually happened in a race and then shoehorn certain events into certain categories to make his keys work — and it’s easy to see how that could happen.
For example, would the Tea Parties count as “sustained social unrest” in the model? Perhaps. Would the Blago trial over Obama’s Senate seat trip the “major scandal” key? Probably not. While Obama could fairly be called charismatic during the campaign, will that still be the case in 2012? In other words, can he still draw an extraordinary turnout from young voters and black voters? That’s looking more and more iffy by the day.
Then there’s the #7 key, the “major changes in national policy.” This is meant to apply to major legislation, like Obamacare, but my initial impression, one that I still hold, is that it may not count under Lichtman’s formula because it’s not supposed to be fully implemented until 2014. Moreover, since the GOP and the public want it repealed, whether it will ever come into force is an open question. So, how can it count as a “major change” in national policy if it may never happen?
So, where does that leave us in Lichtman’s system? Despite what he’s saying, it’s still up in the air. After all, we don’t know if the economy will be in recession in 2012. We don’t know if the GOP will nominate a charismatic candidate (Palin? Yes. Pawlenty, Romney, Daniels? No). Could we have a major failure in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran by then? Yes. Could a major scandal break? Absolutely, especially if the GOP takes over the House and can start investigating Obama. There’s even an outside chance, if Obama gets any more unpopular, of a nomination fight with Hillary.
With that in mind, it’s a little early to be trying to determine whether the 13 keys to the presidency say Obama will be reelected.
PS: There’s one thing worth keeping in mind that the “13 keys” emphasizes: Historically, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, Sr. were a bit of an anomaly. As a general rule, it’s pretty tough duty to knock off a sitting President; so nobody should get cocky unless Obama’s approval rating absolutely craters all the way down to Nixon (or W. at the end of his second term) levels.