Monday, July 15, 2019

Interview: Allan Lichtman unlocks his 'keys to the presidency'

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

This is the second of four articles spanning my discussion with Dr. Allan Lichtman. The first and second pieces are available. 
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: While it is obviously too early to say precisely what will become of polling in 2020, no shortage of pundits and politicians have resumed fawning over new numbers. What should they take away from last year's lesson in reliable election forecasting?

Dr. Allan Lichtman They should stop using polls as predictors and try to understand how presidential elections really work. They should be looking at the big picture of history and models with a reliable track record like the Keys to the White House. This would make election coverage more substantive and better able to assess the impact on the nation of victory by one or the other of the presidential candidates.

A turn away from the polls and towards the big picture of elections would also suggest a new way of campaigning. Candidates should always run as though they are going to win, articulating honestly and forthrightly the policies that the candidate believes will best serve the nation. What no party should do is reprise the conventionally prescribed nostrums for winning elections – improving the technology of campaigning or running endless negative ads. Such tactics are futile because they do not influence the fundamental forces on which elections turn. In the final analysis, the parties have nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of a mandate for governing by actively leading the public rather than following polls and by tying issues together into a unifying, forward-looking theme.

Cotto: Generally speaking, what are your 'keys to the presidency'?

Lichtman: I developed the Keys in 1981, collaborating with the renowned mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok, I developed the Keys to the White House, a system for explaining and predicting presidential election results based on the study of American politics from 1860 to 1980. The Keys model demonstrates that presidential elections are primarily judgments on the performance of the party holding the White House, with speeches, ads, debates, campaign appearances and even tweets accounting for little or nothing in the final outcome.

The Keys to the White House consist of 13 true/false questions, where an answer of true favors the reelection of the party holding the White House. If 6 or more keys are false, the White House party is predicted to lose an upcoming election.

The Keys are fundamentally different from the standard equation models used by most academic forecasters. The problem with the equations is that the multipliers for the explanatory variables (e.g., presidential approval ratings or economic growth) change unpredictably from election to election. They Keys are equally weighted to avoid this pitfall. However, if one key is powerful enough in a given election it will trigger the loss of other keys. For example, in 1932, the Great Depression not only lost for the incumbent Republicans the two economic keys, but also triggered the loss of the Mandate Key (based on midterm election results) and the Social Unrest Key.

In 2016, The Keys uncovered the fundamental problems facing Democrats in their effort to win a third consecutive term in the White House. These included grievous losses in the midterm elections of 2014, a divisive primary contest, the lack of a major domestic policy accomplishment or foreign policy triumph in President Barack Obama’s second term.