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Unlocking the Election

In 1976, Washington insider Averell Harriman famously said of Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, the one-term governor and presidential aspirant, “He can’t be nominated, I don’t know him and I don’t know anyone who does.’’ Within months Jimmy Carter was president. Harriman’s predictive folly serves as an allegory of democratic politics. The unthinkable can happen, and when it does it becomes not only thinkable but natural, even commonplace. The many compelling elements of Carter’s unusual presidential quest remained shrouded from Harriman’s vision because they didn’t track with his particular experiences and political perceptions. Call it the Harriman syndrome.

The Harriman syndrome has been on full display during the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. He couldn’t possibly get the Republican nomination. Too boorish. A political neophyte. No organization. No intellectual depth. A divisive character out of sync with Republicans’ true sensibilities. Then he got the nomination, and now those same perceptions are being trotted out to bolster the view that he can’t possibly become president. Besides, goes the conventional wisdom, demographic trends are impinging upon the Electoral College in ways that pretty much preclude any Republican from winning the presidency in our time.

But Trump actually can win, despite his gaffe-prone ways and his poor standing in the polls as the general-election campaign gets under way. I say this based upon my thesis, explored in my latest book (Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians), that presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent or incumbent party. If the incumbent’s record is adjudged by the electorate to be exemplary, it doesn’t matter who the challenger is or what he or she says or does. The incumbent wins. If that record is perceived as unacceptable, then again it doesn’t much matter who the challenger is or what he or she says or does. The incumbent or incumbent party loses.

We can never know what the electorate will do until it goes to the polls and unlocks the secret of its collective sentiment. But some political scientists have sought to parse the referendum concept through analytical frameworks that lay bare the essence of voters’ presidential decisionmaking. Of these, the most compelling was put forth by Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell in their 1990 book, The 13 Keys to the Presidency. Lichtman and DeCell reject the notion that the electorate renders its presidential decisions based upon such things as negative ads, clever slogans, fund-raising disparities, campaign gaffes, or big-name endorsements. They believe, rather, that the voters, exercising their collective franchise, bring sound judgment to the task of choosing their leaders, that their decisions are based on big-picture considerations and not trivia, and that the country’s referendum guidance system has remained consistent through the country’s presidential history.


In this view, we have been looking in the wrong places as we assess the campaign. Instead of focusing on Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, we should be looking at the presidential performance of Barack Obama—and not his overall tenure but specifically his second-term record. Therein lie, in the Lichtman-DeCell framework, the levers of electoral outcomes.

The authors identify 13 “keys,’’ or fundamental analytical statements, that illuminate the political standing of the party in power. Assessing each presidential election since Lincoln’s 1860 victory, they note that when five or fewer of these statements prove false, the voters side with the incumbent. When six or more are false, the incumbent party gets tossed out. This analytical matrix seeks to apply to politics a set of “pattern recognition’’ algorithms designed to illuminate the politics of today by discerning patterns of circumstance that have guided the country’s political path through history.

In touting this analytical concept as a distillation of referendum politics in presidential elections, I also have noted its possible shortcomings as a predictive tool. Historical patterns, however finely calculated, could be broken at some point by intervening developments or events. And some of the so-called keys call for subjective judgments that inevitably generate disagreement and debate. For example, one of the keys seeks to assess whether the incumbent president has been beset by a major scandal. In their discussion of Ronald Reagan’s second term, the authors conclude that the Iran-Contra scandal was not of sufficient magnitude to turn that particular key against the Republicans. This is difficult to credit, given the long agony of congressional hearings, the career destruction of so many people near the president, and the persistent talk of impeachment or resignation. Finally, life generally, and certainly political life in particular, is too messy, chaotic, and ultimately unpredictable to be captured with utter consistency in any set of algorithms, however sophisticated.

But the Lichtman-DeCell thesis offers a far more accurate view of any campaign than we get from politicians, pundits, and campaign operatives preoccupied with “horse race’’ analyses focused on strategic and tactical maneuvers, clever debate ripostes, or positioning on issues. These are seen as the fundamental factors propelling one horse ahead in the race or retarding the progress of another. The index for assessing all this during the campaign is the public-opinion polls, which determine who’s up and who’s down at any given moment. Lichtman and DeCell reject this approach, particularly the view that early polls have any predictive value at all.

With all that in mind, the Lichtman-DeCell thesis, if applied as a general measure of presidential performance and the possible ballot-box consequences, offers a good starting point for assessing whether the incumbent party is likely to retain the White House or lose it in this election year. And the arbitrariness of some answers, by inviting debate, adds to the intrigue of the exercise. It’s something of a parlor game, so let’s play. But first let’s note that not all the statements (presented for true-or-false answers) are strictly about success levels. Some relate simply to the circumstances surrounding the election and don’t necessarily reflect on incumbent performance.

Yet, according to the thesis, they carry significant weight. So here goes:

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. This reflects the general political standing of the incumbent party. The answer for this year is false—unfavorable to the incumbent.

Key 2 (Nomination Contest): There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination. Bernie Sanders, of course, has rendered this unfavorable to incumbent.

Key 3 (Incumbency): The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. This reflects a modest benefit for presidents seeking reelection. Unfavorable to incumbent.

Key 4 (Third Party): There is no significant third-party or independent campaign. With both major-party candidates logging unfavorable ratings exceeding 50 percent, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson could emerge as a significant factor, and even Green Party candidate Jill Stein could have a material impact on the outcome. Recent RealClearPolitics poll averages put Johnson at 8 percent, while Stein polls at around 4 percent. Don’t discount the possibility that this could tilt against the incumbent party, but for now I’m scoring it as indeterminate.

Key 5 (Short-Term Economy): The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. It seems inconceivable that this could turn false. Favorable to incumbent.

Key 6 (Long-Term Economy): Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. Favorable to incumbent.

Key 7 (Policy Change): The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. Obama has been stymied by the opposition Congress this term, but voters don’t care about the reasons. It’s difficult to attribute to him any significant policy change. I chalk it up as unfavorable to incumbent.

Key 8 (Social Unrest): There is no sustained social unrest during the term. This key denotes the voters’ collective inclination to hold government accountable when there is a lack of domestic tranquility. We’re talking here about blood in the streets, such as what emerged from the racial turmoil of the 1960s or the labor strife of the late 19th century and early 20th century. We haven’t had such riots in recent years (the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles are probably the latest). But the American people, in their collective judgment, may fault the incumbent party for the significant numbers of deaths from the Islamist terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando or the recent assassination attacks on police officers. This remains indeterminate, in part because we don’t have much precedent for such violence of this magnitude, and hence its political significance is difficult to assess. But it could tilt against the incumbent.

Key 9 (Scandal): The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. I’m putting this down as unfavorable to the incumbent on the thesis that FBI Director James Comey essentially elevated the Hillary Clinton email-server controversy to major-scandal status. The scandalous behavior occurred during the first Obama term, but the story broke—and hence the scandal emerged—during the second term. This may be debatable, but most political analysts perceive it as a net negative for the incumbent-party nominee, particularly since the scandal attaches to Hillary Clinton directly.

Key 10 (Foreign or Military Failure): The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. The emergence of ISIS as an Islamist terrorist force that actually commands strategic Mideast territory constitutes such a foreign/military failure. Unfavorable to incumbent.

Key 11 (Foreign or Military Success): The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. I view the Iranian nuclear deal as a significant success, and I suspect the voters do too, notwithstanding the controversy that still surrounds it. Favorable to incumbent.

Key 12 (Incumbent Charisma): The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. No debate here: unfavorable to incumbent.

Key 13 (Challenger Charisma): The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. Whatever one says about Trump, it’s difficult to argue he lacks charisma. Unfavorable to incumbent. 


Based on my scoring, the incumbent Obama administration carries the burden of eight unfavorable keys, with another two that could turn against it before Election Day. If there is any merit in the Lichtman-DeCell framework, then the Democratic Party stands today as ineligible for rehire by the American electorate. There will be no third consecutive Democratic term under Hillary Clinton.

Of course the keys could be wrong in this particular election year, or I could be wrong in my scoring of some that call for subjective assessments (most likely, keys 7, 9, and 10—policy change, scandal, and foreign/military failure). The fact that the keys track with every presidential outcome since 1860 doesn’t guarantee that they will track with this election—particularly given that the GOP nominee is unlike any previous nominee and carries plenty of political baggage of his own.

But, even when we pull back from applying the keys as a pure predictive matrix to be taken literally, they represent a prism on presidential politics through history that shows clearly that Democrats carry a significant burden this year. It is the burden of referendum politics mixed with a generally unimpressive incumbent record and other unfavorable political circumstances. The burden can be seen also in the RealClearPolitics poll average on the direction of the country—the so-called right-track/wrong-track question. Fully 63 percent of respondents now say the country is on the wrong track, while only 31 percent believe it is heading in the right direction. These are remarkable numbers, and they correspond precisely with the Lichtman-DeCell keys.

Or consider the 2012 presidential outcome. Much has been written about the supreme confidence of the Mitt Romney campaign, and Romney himself, that the Republican candidate would upend the Obama incumbency that year. The GOP political operative Karl Rove refused to believe it when Fox News projected Obama the winner on Election Night; as an on-air Fox News commentator that evening, he resisted with unyielding stubbornness the notion that the network was on solid ground in making its call. The network was right, and Rove was wrong.

thisarticleappears [1]But anyone following the Lichtman-DeCell keys harbored no doubt that Obama would be reelected. Only two or three keys, depending on the scoring, turned against him. It could be argued that some of his shortcomings as a leader hadn’t yet caught up with him by election time, and so he retained a relatively high standing in the eyes of voters. But since then, it seems, those shortcomings have manifested themselves in numerous problems, including a stalled domestic program, Mideast chaos, the ISIS threat, growing Islamist terrorism at home, intraparty frictions, and a lingering scandal.

The same happened to George W. Bush, whose leadership weaknesses didn’t yield the kinds of first-term problems that precluded reelection. But by the end of Bush’s second term the country could see that his cumulative leadership over eight years had been something of a disaster, with an Iraq quagmire and the country’s most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Following Bush’s second term, no Republican was going to beat any Democrat in 2008, irrespective of how the campaign unfolded. The referendum politics of presidential elections simply precluded that possibility.

Are we in a similar situation today? Difficult to say. And it would be a mistake to suggest that referendum politics is the end all and be all of every presidential election. Other considerations often come into play—the character of the candidates, the record of the challenger, the relative likability of the combatants. But incumbency performance is by far the most compelling factor. And, for those clinging to the notion that Donald Trump can’t possibly become president because of his rough personal traits, indecorous campaign rhetoric, lack of political experience, and outlandish political positions, a word of caution may be in order: beware the Harriman syndrome.

Robert W. Merry is author of books on American history and foreign policy, including Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians [2].

45 Comments (Open | Close)

45 Comments To "Unlocking the Election"

#1 Comment By Robert Levine On September 15, 2016 @ 1:44 am

Worth noting is that Lichtman himself scores the keys differently than does the author of this post. As the inventor of the system, his analysis deserves considerable weight. In particular, he scores the nomination contest key, the scandal key, and the challenger charisma key as all favorable to Democrats.

I’m not sure I agree with him about the nomination contest key, but I think that, by the criteria he used in analyzing past elections, he’s right about the other two. The Clinton email thing does not begin to rise to the level of Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky affair, except perhaps in the fever swamps of Fox News. As far as charisma, Lichtman identified four 20th-century candidates as charismatic: the two Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Reagan. Trump is not in that league.

The third-party key is, as the author states, not really possible to call at this point. My guess is that ultimately the two third parties fielding candidates this election will not trigger this key; they are what Lichtman calls “perennial third parties” and not really insurgencies led by well-known political figures, which is when the third party key is generally triggered.

One other point is worth mentioning. Lichtman’s first key, the incumbent mandate key, changed during the development of his theory. It was originally based on whether the incumbent party had received an absolute majority of the popular vote in the previous election (which, in this case, would have favored the Democrats). But, because that led to the system predicting an incorrect outcome in one particular election (I don’t remember which one), he changed it to the current comparison of seats won in the previous two mid-terms. I think there’s a case to be made that the advanced state of the gerrymandering art may have rendered this key useless; it is now entirely possible for a party to gain seats from one mid-term to the next while actually doing less well in the popular vote. In fact, that’s exactly what happened from 2010 to 2014; the percentage of the vote that Republican house members received was lower in 2014 than it was in 2010, even though they gained more seats in 2014. In any case, I don’t think that it really favors Trump in the way the author of the OP thinks it does.

Having said all that, I congratulate the author for recognizing and engaging with Lichtman’s work. It’s a very substantial theory with a great track record that, for reasons I don’t fully understand, is generally overlooked by journalists who write about such things.

#2 Comment By Douglas K. On September 15, 2016 @ 3:44 am

I’m highly skeptical of this kind of historic analysis. It’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t, and even then only sort of works because the idea’s proponents wind up explaining away the exceptions.

What I trust is polling. It’s quite well refined, and averaging the results of multiple polls tends to smooth out errors.

Right now, polling composite scores put Hillary Clinton at +5 or more over Trump in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Add in the safely blue states and her floor is 272 electoral votes, even assuming she underperforms relative to her polling by 5 points across the board. Hillary wins even on a bad night.

Of course Trump might close some of that gap in the next seven weeks. We’ll see.

#3 Comment By Tim On September 15, 2016 @ 7:31 am

“If the incumbent’s record is adjudged by the electorate to be exemplary, it doesn’t matter who the challenger is or what he or she says or does. The incumbent wins. If that record is perceived as unacceptable, then again it doesn’t much matter who the challenger is or what he or she says or does. The incumbent or incumbent party loses.”

That is a compelling hypothesis which I find very plausible. As our two parties drift farther apart and become incapable of giving us any representatives whom we find exemplary, what happens to us? We elected Obama in large part to repudiate Bush, who was a total disaster. Now, if your hypothesis holds, we may elect Trump over Hillary as a repudiation of Obama who is becoming more of a disaster with each passing minute. In 4 or 8 years, which loser will the Democrats trot out to repudiate Trump, who is virtually guaranteed to be a total disaster? Most sane Americans just want this roller coaster to be over.

#4 Comment By Clint On September 15, 2016 @ 11:29 am

Trump has the momentum right now, as Hillary Clinton stumbles.

Poll: Clinton, Trump tied in four-way race


#5 Comment By Jim the First On September 15, 2016 @ 11:37 am

I’m highly skeptical of this kind of historic analysis. It’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t, and even then only sort of works because the idea’s proponents wind up explaining away the exceptions.

This, in spades. Plus, many of these keys are so subjective (at least prospectively) as to render them meaningless for anything but fun predictive parlor games.

What I trust is polling. It’s quite well refined, and averaging the results of multiple polls tends to smooth out errors.

Yes and no. Gallup thought this, too, when it predicted Dewey would defeat Truman. Nate Silver was absolutely positive that Trump could never ever ever win the Republican nomination, until he did.

My analysis is that under the old, pre-Big Data-driven elections (i.e. micro-targeting your likely voters, registering them if they are unregistered, and stopping at nothing (probably not even the election laws) in getting them to the polls), Trump would win rather handily, but under the new Big Data-driven campaigns that the initial Obama campaign was the first to master, Clinton is a huge favorite, baggage and all. Organization and ground game trumps a lot – not everything, but a lot.

#6 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 15, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

The overall national numbers show a slight and late recovery from recession.

However, the average and median numbers conceal a split, in which a majority of voters did not participate in the recovery, especially in key swing states.

Trump is actively drawing support from this sense of failure to recover, so it is not just theoretical.

I’d score the recovery against the incumbent too, because key voting segments would.

#7 Comment By The Zman On September 15, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

Averaging polls is the sort of thing people not good at math like to say, believing it makes them sound good at math.

We are seeing a good example of the preference cascade. For well over a year Clinton has been capped at 45%, usually in the low 40’s. As it becomes more respectable to vote for Trump, the more people are willing to move from the undecided/third party column to the Trump column.

#8 Comment By Robert Levine On September 15, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

If I recall correctly, Lichtman also scores both the foreign policy/military success and failure keys differently. ISIS is a foreign policy failure, but not on the public perception of Pearl Harbor, the fall of Vietnam, or the Iran hostage crisis. And the Iran deal is a foreign policy success, but not on the level of, say, winning WW II.

I’m highly skeptical of this kind of historic analysis. It’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t, and even then only sort of works because the idea’s proponents wind up explaining away the exceptions.

What I trust is polling. It’s quite well refined, and averaging the results of multiple polls tends to smooth out errors.

Lichtman has been able to predict successfully the popular-vote winner for the last 7 or 8 elections, in many cases many months in advance – which, by standards of electoral prediction models, is pretty remarkable. Polls, by themselves, don’t predict much, and certainly not long-term – although I agree that Clinton remains the likely winner this year.

#9 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 15, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

@Tim, How has/is Obama “becoming more of a disaster with each passing minute.”? The consensus might be on the Foreign Policy side of the equation, but truthfully, he’s spent 8 years cleaning up the mess handed him by the “total disaster” who preceded him. If you want the rollercoaster to be over, get off the rollercoaster. That is to say, most of the excitement offered by the rollercoaster lies in its design (partisan/tribal/echo chamber nonsense). See: Benghazi, Clinton Foundation, emails, Parkinson’s, etc., etc. be legitimate concerns for a John Q. Public, the hyperbolic birther indignation does a disservice to critical thinking, rational Americans. Make no mistake, the GOP candidate has literally made a career (TV/Pro Wrestling) trading in this currency, but in the end, such hyperbole is a distraction. Obama (I did not vote for him in ’08 or ’12) has succeeded and some areas, and failed in others – such is the nature of the job. As a student of history, I suspect his presidency will be graded somewhere between B- and C+; slightly above average. Whereas, by your assessment, his predecessor and Trump were/are “can’t miss” disasters (D- leaning toward F).

#10 Comment By JonF On September 15, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

Re: we may elect Trump over Hillary as a repudiation of Obama who is becoming more of a disaster with each passing minute

Huh? Have you seen any of the more recent news on the economy? Or for that matter Obama’s soaring approval ratings?

#11 Comment By Clint On September 15, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

Have you seen any of the more recent news on the economy?

The Harvard Business School Report released today.

Report: Government inaction is hampering economic growth


#12 Comment By Derek On September 15, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

I also fail to see how President Obama, a veritable reincarnation of Bill Clinton, but without the scandals, is “becoming more of a disaster each passing minute.” We have less (visible) war, we have more jobs, and we have better pay. Yes, the small segment of the population that was paying peanuts for narrowly-defined healthcare ‘plans’ is paying more now for healthcare than they were 6 years ago, but a large segment now has healthcare that previously did not. This will take decades to unfold but the savings will be immense over the long run. Our international prestige is as high or higher than it was at its peak in 2002 (before Bush started the stupider of his two wars).

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that, outside of the echo chamber, none of partisan concerns of the right wing are shared by the electorate at large. The plight of the underclass (of any color) is not being addressed regardless of which candidate you choose in this election. Immigration is a red herring issue, designed to hide the fact that your boss hasn’t given you a raise in 20 years.

#13 Comment By Archon On September 15, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

I’m sure it makes Obama haters and Republican partisans feel good to think that Obama’s Presidency is the cause for Hillary Clinton’s loss (if she does indeed lose). Economic indicators along with Presidential approval ratings however suggest that if Hillary does lose it will be in spite of the electorates feelings on Obama not because of it.

#14 Comment By Robert Levine On September 15, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

many of these keys are so subjective (at least prospectively) as to render them meaningless for anything but fun predictive parlor games.

That is the usual objection to Lichtman’s theory. But his work gives pretty clear examples of what he considers the kind of events that drive his predictors. For example, “foreign policy/military success” looks like winning WW II and not like the Iran nuclear deal; “foreign policy/military failure” looks like Pearl Harbor and not ISIS’ (temporary) success in gaining territory. “Scandal” looks like Watergate, and not like Clinton’s email (or, interestingly, Iran/Contra, if memory serves). “Social unrest” looks like the summer of 1968, and not like the shootings in Orlando, Dallas, and San Bernadino.

In short, events that drive his predictors are things that are the main (or even sole) subject of national conversation for weeks. Deciding what events are such drivers is not completely objective, perhaps, but it’s also not hard to figure out what the author of the system would consider a given event. A system like his only works if one scores things as honestly as possible, and not as one might wish them to be. Then it can work very well.

At the end of the day, though, Lichtman’s model, like most models of voting behavior, is not intended so much as a predictive system as an attempt to explain how voters make decisions. The Lichtman theory does a remarkable job of modeling such decision-making, and demonstrates clearly his hypothesis that presidential elections are mostly referenda on the performance of the incumbent party. That doesn’t mean it will always be so, but he makes a compelling case that it’s been that way since the Civil War.

#15 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On September 16, 2016 @ 12:18 am

With the chance that Donald will be President, and his followers rejecting outright the Washington establishment and corporate media as enemies; if he does come to power, who are We, the People, supposed to respect and trust? How can you be loyal to, and obey the laws of, a country governed by “Washington insiders”? How can you trust the liberal, coastal, educated, elite media reporting government malfeasance? In who or what should we place our trust? Dark days ahead, dark days.

#16 Comment By Mac61 On September 16, 2016 @ 9:50 am

The hope must be in a reinvigorated Republican Party in 2018 and 2020. As Trump again raises his birther conspiracy, the strongman will give voters plenty of reasons to reject his incoherent campaign. Total waste, when 2016 should have firmly been in Republican hands. I understand why he demolished the Republican field and realigned the issues that galvanize Republican voters, but in the end his pathological narcissism will be his downfall. If he wins, it will be the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party. They will control government from 2018 to the end of our lives.

#17 Comment By Clint On September 16, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

Obama’s economy isn’t gonna help Hillary Clinton.

Government data show that the economy only grew by 1.2 percent in the second quarter.

First quarter growth was also revised down from 1.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

Hillary Clinton addressed the sluggish economy in her speech last night, admitting that Americans “feel like the economy just isn’t working.” Although she cited economic growth under president Obama, she insisted that “none of us can be satisfied with the status quo.”


#18 Comment By Mike Garrett On September 17, 2016 @ 2:44 am

Why is it that nobody is talking about the age of these candidates? Only Ronald Reagan of all American presidents was older than these clowns when he took office, and Reagan was clearly loosing it by the end of his term. Sanders is even older than Reagan was, as well as Jewish. Is it now considered bad form, ageist, to point out their ages? I am a baby boomer about to turn 70 and these are all my classmates or older. Yes, I am in amazing shape, but I would not want to begin such a demanding task now, and it is really silly to think these people are immune from reality.

#19 Comment By Formerly Number One On September 17, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

@Derek – “Our international prestige is as high or higher than it was at its peak in 2002 (before Bush started the stupider of his two wars).”

Eh? We lost first place in “most popular countries in the world” rankings during G. W. Bush’s second term, and under Obama we fell out of the top ten and kept falling. As of 2016 we were in something like 40th place in the “international reputation” rankings. (Canada now has the best reputation. And Germany is “most popular” by several polls, also ranked “Best Country In The World” by US News and World Report, which rather generously ranked us 4th.)


No big surprise to those who have been paying attention. First Bush and then Obama dragged America’s name through the mud with their unnecessary wars and arrogant disregard of sovereignty and international law (illegal invasions, enabling crimes against humanity by “allies”, cash and weapons for human rights violators, the ongoing drone assassination and global mass surveillance programs, secret prisons, etc).

Those may be matters of indifference to the typical American, but there’s no point pretending that internationally our prestige hasn’t suffered terribly under Obama. The typical American probably cares more that under Obama we went from having the largest economy in the world to the third largest (behind China and the EU).

We’re still fantastically powerful and wealthy of course – it’ll take more time to finish squandering that – but people who used to regard us as sunny, competent, and basically just and decent now see us as cynical, paranoid, corrupt, incompetent, and increasingly thuggish.

They also see us in decline, and, considering the the presidential choice we face in November, one can certainly understand why.

#20 Comment By Thomas Kaempfen On September 18, 2016 @ 8:43 am

I think you have to be a little more careful with the word “charisma”. Trump is certainly a compelling person, and in a way that Hillary certainly is not.

But his is a sort of negative charisma. His appeal comes from his repulsiveness, people like him for his aggression and boorishness, he’s famous for his bullying insults, he’s hard to ignore because his ego is so unfathomably huge and fragile. He’s like an accident on the highway that you don’t want to stare at but you can’t stop yourself. That is, he has an incredibly forceful personality and what makes him so appealing to his supporters is exactly what makes him so repulsive to his detractors.

In short, his charisma has very limited appeal. It probably shouldn’t count for the purposes of the analysis in question.

#21 Comment By Skep41 On September 18, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

I am shocked to read statements like ones that say this mega-horrible economy is not weighing against the incumbent. Is the author of this article comfortably ensconced in a neighborhood in the DC Beltway where the times are phat? The Iran nuke deal a plus while we’re paying billion-dollar ransoms to those terrorist thugs? Check out those new ‘man-caused disasters’ that happened this weekend that no Democrat will call Islamic Terrorism. That’s not ‘social unrest’? So this guy, who thinks like a typical NYT editorialist, thinks even then that The Hildebeest is a disaster? Looks bad for the Dems…

#22 Comment By Trusted Commenter On September 19, 2016 @ 12:23 am

Based on the article, at least, it seems as though every one of the 13 keys purports to account for an equal 7.7% (1/13) of the outcome. That would be so bizarrely coincidental that I can’t believe it’s possible.

#23 Comment By Minorkle On September 19, 2016 @ 12:32 am

No Republican was going to beat any Democrat in 2008, irrespective of how the campaign unfolded. The referendum politics of presidential elections simply precluded that possibility. No Democrat can be elected in 2016.

#24 Comment By John Smithson On September 19, 2016 @ 12:36 am

This sort of analysis does seem formulaic rather than predictive. That said, no one can predict the future, nor should they try.

I think the victory in the coming election is still to be won. Another Hillary Clinton collapse may well happen, and if so, that may collapse her campaign as well. Who knows what Donald Trump will do in the next several weeks either.

What interests me is all this angst on both sides, as though Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be horrible leaders. Neither one would be much different than the other. Either will have to deal with a Republican House, and possibly a Republican Senate. The Supreme Court will tilt the way of whoever is elected, but that will not matter much. It never does.

History teaches us that politics and elections have little to do with how well the problems that crop up in a country are handled. There is a lot of sound and fury surrounding elections, but it signifies little.

Myself, I’ll vote for Donald Trump. I don’t like his personal style, but I do like his approach. I’m a lawyer, and I do both litigation and business law. Litigators are like Hillary Clinton. They don’t focus on problems, they focus on the fight about who is to blame.

Business lawyers (at least the good ones) focus on problems, not blame. If they can get a deal that both parties accept, they have done a good job. Donald Trump comes from that background, and I think it will help to have a chief executive who actually has plenty of chief executive experience.

Making predictions is hard, especially about the future. But after seeing Britain vote for Brexit, I’m a little more confident that Donald Trump will move into the White House. Hillary Clinton has the glassiest jaw in politics (save maybe for Martha Coakley) and even the media’s fighting for her may not be enough.

But only time will tell. Here’s looking forward to November 8 for the most interesting election in my long lifetime.

#25 Comment By Gary On September 19, 2016 @ 1:37 am

I contend that in addition to the polls, enthusiasm will be a critical factor in this election as it has in many other elections, especially in Kennedy-Nixon and Obama-McCain.

I realize that many people dismiss the crowds that Donald Trump has garnered, but don’t forget that his are in the thousands while Hillary’s crowds are in the hundreds.

I could be wrong, but I look at the candidates, too, to see how their campaigns are faring.

Hillary seems to be losing physical steam whereas Mr. Trump is looking energized, both of which, I contend, have an influence on undecideds.

People like winners, or at least those who project a winning attitude.

#26 Comment By Ch Hoffman On September 19, 2016 @ 2:41 am

the scoring system – 1 point for each issue – is as relevant to politics as it would be to war:
we won 3 battles and you only won 2 so we won the war.
the items scored are qualitatively different, and don’t just “add up”

#27 Comment By Mathew Wood On September 19, 2016 @ 3:07 am

You don’t need all this statistical gobbledy-gook to know the outcome of this race.

It’s simple. Charisma Always Wins.
Trump has it.
Hillary doesn’t.

I predict a Trump victory and it won’t even be that close.

#28 Comment By Ken Hippler On September 19, 2016 @ 4:21 am

Trump is +9 in the enthusiasm war right now. Hillary excites almost nobody. Hillary also actually is doing worse among men than Trump is with women.

#29 Comment By Andrew P On September 19, 2016 @ 7:10 am

I’m highly skeptical of this kind of historic analysis. It’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t, and even then only sort of works because the idea’s proponents wind up explaining away the exceptions.

I don’t really trust polling either more than a margin of 5 points or so. There are too many unknowns and imponderables. Differential response and a bad estimate of turnout are probably the biggest errors in polling. And 2000 was instructive. If a mere 500 votes in FL had gone the other way, Gore would have been elected instead of Bush. This year we already have pledges from unfaithful electors to vote for Clinton instead of Trump if Trump wins their states, and the potential for shenanigans that were never seen before if the election is very close. The stakes in this contest are too high for the Democrats to accept a loss, and if they seemingly lose on Nov 8 by less than 20 EV, they won’t accept the result. Clinton will do everything possible to steal it somehow – by corrupting electors, by lawsuits, corrupt recounts in multiple states, etc… It ain’t over till it is over.

#30 Comment By Stacey Pokorney On September 19, 2016 @ 7:16 am

“Key 8 (Social Unrest): There is no sustained social unrest during the term….We haven’t had such riots in recent years (the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles are probably the latest)….” SERIOUSLY? Are we to understand that the author of this article has NEVER noticed the uprising of Black Lives Matter? Has the author not heard of the recent riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, and many other cities across the nation? No reaction to the BLM rally in Dallas last July, during which 5 cops who were there to protect the BLM protestors were shot in cold blood by someone who stated he was there to kill white cops? I’m thinking that this is not a subjective topic, and the author has his blinders on. This one goes against the incumbent, based on pure facts alone.

#31 Comment By Harry On September 19, 2016 @ 7:45 am

If the author can’t get this right ( his poor standing in the polls as the general-election campaign gets under way) who wants to read his book? but that’s just my personal dislike for people who use the wrong venues to shamelessly promote their wares and have their friends or even themselves anonymously pat them on the back in the comments section.

#32 Comment By Paul Murphy On September 19, 2016 @ 9:52 am

This analysis seems very reasonable to me – with one important qualification: the judgment rendered by the public on each of the 13 keys reflects the public’s knowledge of the facts. In every election prior to 2012 that knowledge arose almost exclusively from inter-personal communication and the opinion content of the traditional media and so reflects a media concensus more than it does some imaginary objective reality.

In 2012 Romney won roughly 2/3rds of all auditable polls; Obama won only in areas where the GOP could not raise significant questions without facing accusations of racism. In Ohio, for example, Obama won the electoral college by fewer than 100,000 votes – all from black areas counting approximately 100% of eligible voters as voting for Obama. Reduce the vote in those areas to historical levels, and Romney won by roughly the same amount – and this is generally true across states, like Pennsylvania, that Obama won.

The difference is coming from the so-called “alternative” media and Mr. Merry’s judgment on the 13 keys does not take this into account. Include consideration of alternative information sources in the discussion, and the incumbent shows major scandals (e.g. Obamacare, Iran, the EPA, the IRS); the economy seems a shambles (e.g. “clean” energy; real unemployment) etc.

Bottom line: the major media score for the incumbent; reality scores against and the real questions for those guessing the value of these keys are: where does the voter get his or her information? and how much does the voter trust these sources?

#33 Comment By Mark1985 On September 19, 2016 @ 3:36 pm

This is pretty reasonable and rational. Violence in the streets just went Trump’s way this weekend. Add to this evaluation the fact that every Trump campaign plank polls superior to Hillary’s official positions. Both disfavor the unpolitical TPP but Obama continues to pitch this turd while Hillary flipped flopped on it. Advantage Trump on TPP.

#34 Comment By Ayatollah Ghilmeini DD On September 19, 2016 @ 4:20 pm

We may not like her but for a significant number of women, Mrs. Clinton is a hero, first first lady to get the nominee, etc.

As for foreign policy success, the American people are not fooled by the Iran deal, we gave a bunch of money to some very evil men- the rest of the world is one fire or in a state of collapse. Obama’s only success was the ebola epidemic and reopening Cuba.

#35 Comment By jay kalend On September 19, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

The author is generous to Obama when it comes to the long-term economic growth and foreign policy keys. Although some polls (I believe Pew) list the economy as far and away a more important voter concern than either immigration or terrorism, people are feeling an insecurity about jobs and/or money that simply has not been a topic of recurrent polling over many elections. How does one gauge “economic insecurity”(it may be that welfare recipients feel very secure about their lives)? And how did employment disappear over the last forty years as a distinctive voter bloc concern?

And no, I cannot list the Iran deal as a foreign policy success. I know nobody who will talk of it unless prodded: Their apparent assent to Obama’s policy is based on willful or unwillful disregard of facts that point to undesireable outcomes or motives of the adversary. This is a repeat of my experiences discussing the Cold War as it existed in the 70’s. The snookering behind SALT, the horrors of Cambodia, the dishonorable ‘peace’ of Viet Nam simply did not register on the electorate except as “beating a dead horse”. But neither did any detailed rationale for peace, as Obama has fitfully discovered recently.

Conclusion: The electorate is volatile, as the “Nuke Iran” crowd demonstrated. It is highly unlikely that such volatization will benefit Clinton, as the familiarity of her scare-mongering has bred enough contempt.

#36 Comment By Tom On September 19, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

In the UK there is a saying that “parties don’t win elections, governments lose them”. Which I think is the pithy version of what the author is saying. I do think that if that is the correct reading of the Lichtman’s thesis, keys 12 and 13 are basically fudge factors that make the thesis less valid. If Lichtman was confident in the ideas that the candidate doesn’t matter keys 12 and 13 don’t belong.

Also I’m a big believer in demographics and I’m not sure that the polls show anything more or less than the traditional democrats and traditional republican constituencies are more real than the candidates. A lot of the most recent polling shift to trump seems to be normally solid GOP voters who don’t like trump finally admitting that they will vote for the GOP nominee.

As an aside, how much of the 20th century reemergence and dominance of the democrats was driven by the growth of the catholic voter base and how much of its decline back to parity with the GOP was driven by the loss of the southern whites? In hindsight was the ideology of the New Deal what drove the rise of the democrat or was it Ellis Island?

#37 Comment By Matt Kremer On September 19, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

Very interesting but it still seems to rely far too much on subjective analysis. For example, the Iran deal was a positive for the incumbent? Difficult to see that, especially after the “cash for hostages” and the continued anti-American rantings of Tehran. I’ll admit, I’m baffled by Mr. Obama’s high approval ratings, so maybe the author has a better feel for the pulse of the citizenry than I do. What is clear is that neither candidate will survive an October surprise.

#38 Comment By Bob Rogers On September 19, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

The top line number from the latest Census report was 5% median household income growth. Unreported was that wage growth was only 2%. Also that median income outside of MSAs was negative 2%

Since 1978 the highest rate of net new jobs was in Reagan’s time. Clinton’s 8 years were singular in being all positive. Obama is singular in having the only consecutive losses.

So what is the explanation for income growth that’s not from wages. I’m guessing its boomers who lost jobs who have burned through savings and are now cashing out deferred income: IRAs and 401k

#39 Comment By Daniel Meissner On September 19, 2016 @ 10:06 pm

I’ve followed the 13 Keys in every election since 1992.It’s been spot-on every time. Keep in mind that the Keys predict the popular vote, so you can get surprising results such as Bush v. Gore. Btw, I count 7 keys against the incumbent party, including #8 – remember the riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, not to mention BLM? At this point, I am predicting a popular vote win for DJT, but an electoral college win for HRC – that wall of blue states is just too much to climb over.

#40 Comment By straight rate On September 20, 2016 @ 2:42 am

“Mr. Obama’s high approval ratings”

He doesn’t have “high approval ratings”.

Obama’s highest approval rating (76%) thus far is in the middle range. His lowest approval rating (38% is in the high middle range. His highest disapproval rating (57%) is also in the middle range.

His average approval rating (47%) thus far is among the lowest. Of the 13 presidents (from Franklin Roosevelt on) for whom Gallup conducted these polls, only Carter and Truman are lower. He’s currently around 50%.

In other words, Obama does not and never has had “high approval ratings”. Indeed, he’ll be lucky if his average approval rating stays above Jimmy Carter’s.

#41 Comment By Joe Boggi On September 20, 2016 @ 3:23 am

Thanks for posting your assessment. It makes me more comfortable about a Trump defeat. There are four negative keys.

Things do change, so there is that, fortunately Professor Lichtman is impartial in his scoring of the keys. That is why they work every election. Unless the Supreme Court gets involved.

#42 Comment By IssacNewtwon On September 20, 2016 @ 4:26 am

In terms of Key 6, I find it hard to think that 2012 – 2016 had more economic growth than 2004-2012. A quick look at GDP growth rates shows it has declining since 2008 See. [7] Key 11 – The Iraq deal was stupid. At best we gave them $150 B+ and got a promise not to go nuclear for 10 years. IT was not passed by the Senate. I do not think it is a foreign policy success.

#43 Comment By JJK On September 20, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

Key 14 (Media Bias) How does the media portray said candidates to the public as a whole?

The mainstream media has made Trump out to be a sexist, racist, money crazed bigot. The American people can see through medias BS quite well, thus causing people to not be truthful to pollsters. Thus Kellyanne Conway’s theory of the “Undercover” Trump supporter is probably very underrated. My gut tells me that it may be 10%, possibly pushing 15%. That means Trump wins in a landslide IMHO.

#44 Comment By Russsell Seitz On September 22, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

Averell Harriman’s judgement did not impress one famous republican of today : William Kristol, ran Harvard yard’s undergraduate Committee to Elect Carter

#45 Comment By Alex G On September 22, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

For key 8 Social Unrest there was no mention of the BLM riots in regards different cities.

#46 Comment By Joe Boggi On September 23, 2016 @ 8:23 pm


Professor Lichtman spoke.

1. He does not see a foreign policy success. Previously, he noted that the Iran deal was a foreign policy success. ( His opinion )

2. Previously, he did not see a 3rd party candidate. Since then his criteria for that have been met. Johnson meets that apparently.

So that means there are SIX KEYS AGAINST THE INCUMBENT PARTY, and DJT will win.

According to the Professor.

#47 Comment By Keith On September 25, 2016 @ 10:32 am

What’s up with the comment about Sanders being old “as well as Jewish”?