Four years ago, American University History Professor Allan Lichtman predicted a victory by Donald Trump in the presidential election. It had nothing to do with polls, campaign strategies, or events, and everything to do with Lichtman’s “13 Keys” system, which predicts the winner based on the performance of the incumbent party.
Fast forward to 2020. With the presidential election just weeks away, Joseph R. Biden is leading in the polls. But what do the “13 Keys” tell us? Through a video released exclusively online in The New York Times, Lichtman revealed his prediction for the outcome of the fall election.
The “13 Keys,” featured in Lichtman’s book Keys to the White House, are renowned for their accuracy, and are a resource for aspiring politicians. They are based on a scientific model of “13 Keys,” or conditions that favor reelection of the incumbent party candidate. When five or fewer are false, the incumbent party candidate wins. When six or more are false, the other party candidate wins.
“The Keys show that elections are not horse races in which candidates surge ahead or fall behind on the campaign trail, with pollsters keeping score,” says Lichtman. “Rather, 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.”
The system correctly predicted Donald J. Trump’s win in 2016, and Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. In 2005, with the presidential election nearly three years out and neither party with a chosen nominee, Lichtman declared that the Democrats would retake the White House no matter which candidate—Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards—captured the Democratic nomination.
The system also predicted George W. Bush's 2004 reelection as early as April 2003, Al Gore’s popular vote victory in 2000, Bill Clinton’s win in 1996, George Bush’s defeat in 1992, the outcome of the 1988 presidential election when Michael Dukakis was well ahead in the polls, and the 1984 outcome long before anyone knew who Ronald Reagan’s Democratic challenger would be.
Outlining the Keys
- Key 1 (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 (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 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 administration is untainted by major scandal.
- Key 10 (Foreign/military failure): The administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
- Key 11 (Foreign/military success): The 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.
How did the keys turn for 2020? In The New York Times’s video, Lichtman walks through his analysis of the Keys, which reveal Biden as the winner.