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The Keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

By Gregg Sangillo

The next president will largely be determined by the incumbent party's record in office.

The next president will largely be determined by the incumbent party's record in office.

Without a single vote cast, there's already been plenty of drama this election season. There was the Donald Trump-Megyn Kelly spat. There were questions about Hillary Clinton's "damn emails." Ben Carson is still an Egyptian pyramid truther. Yet based on historical precedent, much of this is background noise you can just as soon ignore.

American University historian Allan Lichtman identifies 13 fundamental "Keys" to win the presidency, and these are largely rooted in the incumbent party's performance in office. In his forthcoming 2016 book, Lichtman will offer an updated analysis of how to determine the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And he lays out some provocative arguments that campaign consultants would be smart to consider.

"It tosses out everything people thought they knew about presidential elections. First of all, it says campaigns are largely irrelevant. They don't matter. And, for the most part, the candidates don't matter. I've predicted most of my elections before I even knew who the candidates were. It also says parties don't matter, ideology doesn't matter," Lichtman says.

Ways to Win

Lichtman's 13 Keys to predicting the general presidential election are listed below. They are true/false statements, and if the incumbent party has five or fewer false answers, the incumbent-party nominee will win. If the incumbent party has six or more false answers, the challenging-party nominee will secure victory.

Key 1 (Incumbent-party mandate): After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections.

Key 2 (Nomination-contest): There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.

Key 3 (Incumbency): The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.

Key 4 (Third party): There is no significant third-party or independent campaign.

Key 5 (Short-term economy): The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

Key 6 (Long-term economy): Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

Key 7 (Policy change): The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

Key 8 (Social unrest): There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

Key 9 (Scandal): The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

Key 10 (Foreign or military failure): The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

Key 11 (Foreign or military success): The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

Key 12 (Incumbent charisma): The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

Key 13 (Challenger charisma): The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Lichtman devised the Keys after a chance encounter in the early 1980s with Vladimir Keilis-Borok, a Russian geophysicist and expert on Earthquake prediction. After applying mathematical procedures to study every American presidential election since 1860, Lichtman correctly predicted that Ronald Reagan would defeat Walter Mondale in the 1984 race. Using this same formula, he's predicted every general election winner since.

This gives him an advantage over many pundits whose forecasting track records leave a lot to be desired. "Unless you tell me that the things you're pointing to, you've used five, six, seven times to predict an election outcome, I say they're of no scientific value. Most scientists wouldn't accept a theory that doesn't predict anything, or that predicts things incorrectly."

Defending the Keys, Shattering Myths

Some of the Keys lack easy yes or no answers, but Lichtman vociferously argues that they be part of the equation. It's hard to ignore an issue like candidate charisma, and he's used it sparingly (with candidates like John F. Kennedy, Reagan, or Barack Obama in his 2008 run). "There are subjective elements here, and I've been blasted for them. And my answer is, 'The world is subjective!' Even in hard science, there's the uncertainty principle," he says.

A few Keys are especially instructive for the 2016 election. For instance, many campaign watchers have argued that it's better for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to have a contested primary fight. This way, people will at least hear Democratic ideas, and it could sharpen her campaign skills before the general election.

As he argued in an op-ed in The Hill, that line of thinking is absolutely false. "What is that conventional wisdom based on? Nothing. Can they point to major nomination contests that have helped the party in power? I say 'Never.' They always lose," he explains.

The Keys also debunk a lot of campaign history treated as gospel. That classic Gerald Ford debate gaffe when he said "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" wasn't what delivered the presidency to Jimmy Carter. Michael Dukakis awkwardly getting in that battle tank wasn't the reason he lost the 1988 race. Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show may have been cool, but that's not why he got elected in 1992.

Another question arises: Why do you give equal weight to all 13 Keys? If there's a Great Depression, wouldn't that make economic issues worth more than two Keys? Lichtman says there's a self-corrective way to consider that dilemma.

"If something is big enough, it will trigger other Keys. With the Great Depression, you had Republican losses in the midterm election of 1930. It triggered social unrest," he explains. This also proved fertile ground for the charismatic candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt, he says. "So right there, you've already got four or five Keys directly attributable to the Depression."

This chain reaction also happened in 1968, he notes. The catastrophic Vietnam War was a foreign policy failure, but it also sparked social unrest, midterm losses for House Democrats, Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for re-election, and a big nomination fight. Another Key turned with the major third-party candidacy of former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Mandates for Change

Campaign strategists are generously compensated for their advice on image-crafting, advertising, and daily war-room political combat. Yet based on Lichtman's findings, they may be mired in minutia to the detriment of their candidates.

"Campaigns should be mandate-building, so that you can actually successfully govern. Instead, campaigns are negative ads, soundbites, tricks, shallow debates," Lichtman says. If you stake bold positions on big issues—something pollsters frequently tell candidates to avoid doing—people are not just voting for the person, but specific proposals.

But is that a risky proposition for candidates trying to appeal to a deeply-divided electorate? Lichtman says no, because campaigns are about more than just winning. You're laying the groundwork for policy implementation. "If you do win, you've built a mandate to govern. And if you don't win, at least you've been significant, because you've said something."

In his 1980 run, Ronald Reagan set a mandate that he lived up to in his first term, Lichtman says. He's more critical of John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, two candidacies heavily based on personal biography. "They were totally forgettable campaigns. Not because they lost, but because they had nothing to say."

A Democracy, After All

Lichtman hasn't made his prediction for 2016 yet, as there are still too many Keys outstanding. But regardless of who wins next year, Lichtman does offer reasons to be hopeful. The Keys suggest that the public really does make informed decisions based on vital economic and foreign policy issues.

Though observers bemoan the corrupting influence of money in a post-Citizens United landscape, Lichtman says campaign contributions don't mean much in a general presidential election. "The people who vote know who you are and what you stand for. You don't need paid media," he says.

And while some commentators have worried that our electoral system is broken, Lichtman says general presidential races are much more democratic (small "d") than congressional and statehouse elections.

"Presidential elections are still the last bastion of American democracy. You can't buy them, and you can't gerrymander them."