The Keys to Election 2004: Thirteen Diagnostic Questions Prove to Be a Surprisingly Accurate Barometer for Presidential Elections

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Despite a record number of Democrats seeking the presidential nomination, their prize will not be worth much unless the now sizzling economy fizzles in the next few months. Even then George W. Bush may well win election to a second term in office. This good news for President Bush and grim news for Democrats comes from the Keys to the White House, a prediction system based on the analysis of every American presidential election since 1860. The Keys first predicted a Bush victory on 24 April 2003 in the column I regularly write for the Montgomery Gazette newspaper. That prediction still stands today.

I developed the Keys system in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on the mathematics of prediction models. History shows that the choice of a president does not turn on debates, advertising, speeches, endorsements, rallies, platforms, promises, or campaign tactics. Rather, presidential elections are primarily referenda on how well the party holding the White House has governed during its term. The Keys give specificity to this idea of how presidential elections work, assessing the performance, strength, and unity of the party holding the White House to determine whether or not it has crossed the threshold that separates victory from defeat. (See Table 1, "Keys to the White House")

Retrospectively, the Keys accurately account for the results of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980, much longer than any other prediction system. Prospectively, the Keys predicted well ahead of time the popular-vote winners of every presidential election from 1984 through 2000. (See Table 2, "How the Thirteen Keys Turned") As a nationally-based system the Keys cannot diagnose the results in individual states and thus are more attuned to the popular vote than the Electoral College results. The 2000 election, however, was the first time since 1888 that the popular vote verdict diverged from the Electoral College results. And the Keys still got the popular vote right in 2000, just as they did in 1888 when Democrat Grover Cleveland won the national tally but lost in the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison and in 1876 when Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

No such divergence, moreover, would have occurred in the 2000 election except that ballots cast by African American voters in Florida were discarded as invalid at much higher rates than ballots casts by white voters. As demonstrated in a study I prepared for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, if the rejection rate in Florida for ballots cast by blacks had been equivalent to the rate for whites, more than 50,000 additional ballots cast by blacks would have been counted in the election. Surveys of black voting show that the overwhelming majority of these ballots would have been cast for Al Gore.

The Keys are 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer of these propositions are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins. The keys indicate incumbent party success or failure long before the polls or any other forecasting models are of any value.

The Keys differ from other prediction models in significant ways. Unlike many models developed by political scientists, the Keys include no polling data, but are based on the big picture of how well the party in power and the country are faring prior to an upcoming election. In addition, the Keys do not presume that voters are driven by economic concerns alone. Voters are less narrow-minded and more sophisticated than that; they decide presidential elections on a wide-ranging assessment of the performance of incumbent parties. The most renowned economic-based model--developed by Professor Ray Fair of Yale University--missed the outcome in 1976 because it ignored Watergate and the collapse of Vietnam. …