The Keys to the White House 2000: How Presidential Elections Really Work

By Lichtman, Allan J. | National Forum, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Keys to the White House 2000: How Presidential Elections Really Work


Lichtman, Allan J., National Forum


Every four years, through their answers to post-election surveys and their failure to show up at the polls, Americans protest our shallow and even offensive campaigns for president. Yet nothing changes from one election to the next, because the media, the candidates, the pollsters, and the consultants are codependent in the idea that elections are exercises in manipulating voters, and in giving us negative campaigns, bland and scripted lines, and meaningless debates. We will not reform our politics and get meaningful participation by the American people until we come to realize that presidential elections turn on how well an administration has governed the country, not on how well candidates have performed in the campaign.

The study of history shows that a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president according to the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term - economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation. If the nation fares well during the term of the incumbent party, that party wins another four years in office; otherwise, the challenging party prevails. Nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies - the usual grist for the pundit, ry mills - count for virtually nothing on Election Day. The only issues that matter are the ones for which the results are already in before the campaign begins. Thus, the fate of an incumbent party is largely in its own hands; there is little that the challenging party can do to influence the outcome of a presidential election. Even the celebrated campaigner, President Bill Clinton, won reelection in 1996 because the nation, under his watch, was tranquil, prosperous, and at peace.

If candidates and the media could come to understand that governing, not campaigning, counts in presidential elections, we could have a new kind of presidential politics. Candidates could abandon attack ads and instead articulate forthrightly and concretely what Americans should be accomplishing during the next four years. Aspirants for the presidency could bring the public back into presidential elections by using campaigns to build grassroots support for the policy agenda they would follow if elected president.

This new vision of American politics is based on The Keys to the White House, a prediction system that derives from the study of every presidential election from 1860 to 1996. This system also provides insight into party prospects for the 2000 election at a time when polls forecast upcoming election results about as accurately as the flipping of coins.

I first developed the Keys system in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a worldrenowned authority on the mathematics of prediction models. The system shows that it is possible to predict well ahead of time the outcomes of presidential elections from indicators that primarily track the performance and strength of the party holding the White House.

Retrospectively, the Keys 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 winners of every presidential election from 1984 through 1996. (For a full explanation of the Keys system and the earlier predictions, see Allan J. Lichtman, The Keys to the White House, 1996 [Lanham: Madison Books, 1996].) They called Vice President George Bush's victory in the spring of 1988 when he trailed Mike Dukakis by double-digits in the polls and was being written off by the pundits. The Vice President defied the polls and the pundits, not because he discovered negative ads or refurbished his image, but because voters ratified the performance of the Reagan administration - four years of prosperity, the defusing of the Cold War, and a scandal that faded away. …

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