Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Interview: Why do Allan Lichtman's 'keys to the presidency' predict elections so well? He explains.

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

This is the final article of my discussion with Dr. Allan Lichtman. The firstsecond, and third 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: Beyond any other factor, why have your keys proven so effective in forecasting presidential races?

Dr. Allan Lichtman: The Keys are effective because they are based on sound, scientific procedure using the record of history. No other model as indicated above matches the methodology of the Keys. The Keys are also robust predicters because they are based on the study of all presidential elections since 1860. Obviously during this period, the nation has undergone enormous changes in its demography, social structure, economy, and politics.

Cotto: Skeptics say that your keys failed to call the Electoral College outcome in 2000 and, in 2016, missed the popular vote total. What do you have to say to them?

Lichtman: This is a fair question. I still stand by my call in 2000 as fundamentally correct. Bush won the Electoral College by 537 votes out of 6 million cast; no model can predict with that degree of precision. Also, Bush only won Florida only because one out of every 9 or 10 votes cast by an African American in Florida was discarded as invalid. If there were no racial disparities in discarded votes, Gore would have won Florida by more than 40,000 votes (see Lichtman, “What Really Happened in Florida’s 2000 Presidential Election,” Journal of Legal Studies 32 (January 2003).

More importantly, there has been a fundamental change in American presidential politics since 1981.  first developed the keys more than 35 years ago, the popular vote drove the Electoral College vote. The last time that the two had diverged was in 1888. However, that is no longer the case. In any close election, the Democrats will almost certainly win the popular vote, regardless of the Electoral College outcome. That is because the parties pile up a margin of some 6 million extra votes in the states of California and New York alone, margins that count for mothing in the Electoral College. That is why in 2016 I did not qualify my prediction to say it covers the popular vote only, but indicated that Donald Trump would be the next president.