American University History Professor Allan Lichtman has accurately predicted every presidential election since 1984 with a 13-factor formula that has nothing to with public opinion polls or his personal preferences about who would make the best president. He calls it the “Keys to the White House,” a historically based prediction system with true-false questions after reviewing every election since 1860.
The factors are:
If the answer to most of the following questions is false, the incumbent party will lose. If true, the incumbent party will win:
- The party holding the White House gained seats in the last mid-term elections. False for Trump. (Republicans lost the House of Representatives in 2018, as well as 2006, and 1990, presaging their party’s defeats in 2008 and 1992. But this is not a definitive predicter, because Democrats lost the House in 2010 after Barack Obama’s first two years, and Democrats lost the House in 1994 after Bill Clinton’s first two years. Yet they won re-election.)
- There is no primary contest for the White House party. True, for Trump in 2020.
- The incumbent president is seeking re-election. True, for Trump in 2020.
- There is no third-party challenger. True, for Trump in 2020.
- The short-term economy is strong. False, for Trump in 2020.
- Long-term economic growth for this presidential term has been as good as the past two terms. False, for Trump in 2020.
- The White House has made major changes in national policy. True, for Trump in 2020.
- There is no social unrest during the presidential term. False, for Trump in 2020.
- The White House is untainted by scandal. False, for Trump in 2020.
- The White House has no foreign or military failures abroad. Lichtman rates this true for Trump in 2020, although Democrats will try to blame him for casting a blind eye to Saudi Arabian human rights abuses, including the murder of a journalist, for being soft on Russia and too close to Vladimir Putin.
- The White House has a major success abroad. Lichtman rates this false for Trump in 2020, although Trump will no doubt boast about moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and claiming credit for peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as well as, potentially, other Gulf States.
- The incumbent party candidate is charismatic. Lichtman rates this false for Trump.
- The challenger is uncharismatic. Lichtman rates this true for Joe Biden.
7 False: 1, 5,6, 8, 9, 11, 12
6 True: According to Lichtman’s formula, Trump will therefore lose re-election. But he likely would have won re-election if not for the pandemic and its negative impact on the short-term and long-term economy.
Testing Lichtman’s formula on past close elections:
2016: Here’s a Washington Post article from September 2016 predicting a Trump win. He pointed out that Democrats got crushed in the 2014 midterms, Obama (who had a high approval rating) was not running for re-election, there was no major policy change or success in Obama’s second term, he had no major foreign policy success in his second term, Hillary Clinton was not charismatic, was weighted down by the perception of major scandals, and there were third- and fourth- party (Libertarian and Green Party candidates ) garnering enough votes to flip swing states. That’s seven factors in favor of Trump.
1960: Vice President Richard Nixon was running against Senator John F. Kennedy. Nixon’s Republican party endured substantial losses in the midterms of 1958. He did face (delayed and minor) primary opposition from NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller. President Dwight Eisenhower was barred from seeking re-election after two terms. There was a third party challenge from Dixiecrat Harry Byrd who received six electoral votes in Alabama that would have otherwise gone to JFK. The economy was pretty strong, with low unemployment and low inflation, which might have helped Nixon. There was national consensus on domestic and foreign policy, with few perceived failures or great successes by Ike. The main issue was whether the Eisenhower administration was “winning” the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Nixon faced minor scandals shadowing his career since the early 1950s (the Checkers’ slush fund to reimburse him for campaign expenses) and smears of Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas as a communist. Kennedy as a fresh face and war hero did not have equivalent scandals. His womanizing was unknown or unreported. Nixon was not charismatic, whereas Kennedy definitely was. I suppose Lichtman’s formula would have given a slight advantage to JFK, but it would have been close.
1948: Many factors were against the president, Harry S. Truman, yet he won anyway. Truman’s party lost seats in the 1946 midterms; he had intra-party challenges from the left (Henry Wallace) and right (Strom Thurmond); he suffered in comparison to his immediate predecessor, the charismatic Franklin D. Roosevelt. There was social unrest during his term (railroad and coal workers’ strikes in 1946; desegregation of the military in 1948); attempts to taint him with scandal (his relationship with the Pendergast machine of Kansas City; favoritism in judicial appointments). There were perceived foreign policy failures. The far right blamed him for losing Eastern Europe to Soviet Russia. The far left blamed him for dropping the h-bombs on Japan and introducing nuclear war, an arms race, and starting a Cold War. Neither Truman nor his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey were charismatic.
Yet he also had foreign policy successes — dropping the h-bombs and suddenly ending World War II early in his term in 1945 was wildly popular, as was the Berlin Air Lift of 1948. Truman was fortunate that the mainstream media in the latter part of the 1940s was not so ideologically stratified as to blame him for things he could do little about, such as “losing Eastern Europe.” The public pretty much accepted his judgment on dropping the bombs, the real threat of Soviet Russia, and his policy of containment.
The economy was pretty good in 1948 — less than four percent unemployment. A recession soon followed in 1949. His popularity was low in 1946, and plunged later in his term, but was sufficient in 1948 for him to narrowly win re-election.
In short, there is some subjectivity to Lichtman’s formula. If Trump can persuade the 14 percent of undecided voters that the worst of the coronavirus is behind the U.S. and the economy is making a comeback, that he has a vision for a renewed economy, he might have a fighting chance for re-election…But he must also neutralize the weight of serious scandals, a difficult challenge indeed.