Sunday, June 30, 2019

Interview: Allan Lichtman says the past "is the only reliable guide to the outcome of presidential elections"

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"Like I've said before .... polls are only good for strippers and cross-country skiers," Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly two days before last year’s presidential election.

While I have criticized her more than a fair bit during years gone by, it is undeniable that she turned out to be a sage among pundits.

When Palin made her remark, virtually all national opinion surveys – save two highly important yet conspicuously underreported ones – indicated an impending win for Hillary Clinton. Reuters predicted she was set to win 247 electoral votes outright and favored to seize so many more that her chance of victory hovered at 90 percent.

At the Princeton Election Consortium, Dr. Sam Wang – a neuroscientist and prolific author – declared that Clinton enjoyed a 99 percent probability of winning. The platinum-grade forecaster Moody's Analytics also claimed she would triumph in the Electoral College.

United Press International, in conjunction with the polling group CVoter, reported that her Electoral College lead over Trump was substantial: 259 to 209.

After the race was called, Clinton barely eked out 232 votes. Her vaunted 'firewall' of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin crumbled into ash. Only Minnesota and New Hampshire stood -- and not by any means tall. Clinton struggled to win either, despite the former having gone to every Democratic nominee since Richard Nixon's 1972 earth-slide over George McGovern.

Just a few hours earlier, Clinton fans were jubilant over her seemingly assured victory. By the morning after, perhaps more tears were shed than at any other time in twenty-first century America.

What is the moral to this story?

Above and beyond all other factors, something is not impossible simply because the smartest guys and gals in the room – or at least those who perceive themselves as such – claim it is. While the self-appointed experts are accustomed to seeing a handful of their predictions go south, such as who will win a House seat or state legislature majority, they were not prepared to flub on so epic a scale as the U.S. presidency.

Unlike virtually all other professional election watchers, Dr. Allan Lichtman did not forecast a Clinton victory. Instead, he suggested that Trump would win, which caused a considerable stir among the echo chambers within D.C.'s beltway. Using historical rather than polling data, Lichtman turned out to be correct and many of his detractors were left eating their hats, so to speak.

"Lichtman received his PhD from Harvard University in 1973 with a specialty in modern American history and quantitative methods," his biography at American University reads. "He became an Assistant Professor of History at American University in 1973 and a Full Professor in 1980. He was the recipient of the Scholar/Teacher of the year award for 1992-93. He has published seven books and several hundred popular and scholarly articles. He has lectured in the US and internationally and provided commentary for major US and foreign networks and leading newspapers and magazines across the world. He has been an expert witness in more than 75 civil and voting rights cases. His book, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. His prediction system, the Keys to the White House, has correctly predicted the outcomes of all US presidential elections since 1984."

Lichtman recently spoke with me about many issues relative to political predictions. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: More than any other reason, why did history prove the best guide to predicting an outcome for the 2016 presidential election, as it did in previous races?

Dr. Allan Lichtman: History is the only reliable guide to the outcome of presidential elections. There is no other basis for building a sound, testable model for how presidential elections work. The study of history focuses our attention on the big picture of events and trends that drive elections, rather than the day-to-day twists and turns of the campaign, which in the end count for little or nothing in deciding elections

Cotto: Crunching numbers, especially in our social media-driven, sound bite-prone age, is touted as the begin all, end all of event forecasting. In 2016, perhaps more attention was given to polls than in any previous election. At the same time, historical trends indicated something quite different from polling data. Most in the press chose to go with the polls. Can this be chalked up to an attempt at meeting audience expectations or is history simply devalued in our day and age?

Lichtman: History has never had a prominent place in the analysis of elections, which is dominated not by serious scholarship, but by punditry, which has grown in volume and importance in the all-encompassing media age in which we now live. A focus on the polls serves two critical functions for the media.

First, it is easy to write or broadcast stories about the polls. It takes no legwork, knowledge, or imagination. You don’t have to get out of bed in the morning to write a story about the latest polls. Second, by creating the impression of elections as a horserace with candidates sprinting ahead or falling behind the media creates the drama that enables it to cover an election each day to feed the new cycle and bump up ratings and circulation.

Cotto: Those who placed their confidence in historical data, and therefore anticipated a Donald Trump victory, were routinely castigated by the chattering class. Given historical data's track record, why did so many influential people choose to ignore it?

Lichtman: It does not serve the interests of the media to pay attention to the big picture of history since it would invalidate their day-to-day horserace coverage of the election. To understand why the media is so addicted to polls and horserace coverage take the advice that Deep Throat gave to Bob Woodward and “follow the money.” The media reaps huge revenues by covering every day the seemingly dramatic story of the poll-driven horserace, however, misguided such coverage may be.