According to the Keys, presidential elections are referenda on the record of the party in power. If America has fared well during the past four years, the party holding the White House gains another term in office. If not, the challenging party wins.
The incumbent party's record is largely in place before the general election campaign even begins. This means that campaigns matter little if anything at all in deciding the outcomes of presidential elections.
I developed the Keys to the White House in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, Director of the Institute of Pattern Recognition and Earthquake Prediction in Moscow and one of the world's leading authorities in prediction methodology. The Keys account retrospectively for the outcome of all presidential elections from 1860 to 1980, much longer than any other prediction system.
The Keys predicted well ahead of time the winners of the presidential elections of 1984, 1988, and 1992. The system forecast George Bush's election in the spring of 1988, when the vice president was sinking to a 17 point deficit in the polls. The Keys also predicted Bill Clinton's win in early September 1992, just as the volatile three-way general election campaign was getting underway.
Table 1: The 13 Keys to the White House, September 1996
The Keys are statements that favor re-election of the incumbent party. When five or fewer are false, the incumbent party wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
NUMBER OF KEYS FOR PRESIDENT CLINTON: 8
NUMBER OF KEYS AGAINST PRESIDENT CLINTON: 5
PRESIDENT CLINTON WINS IN 1996
Each of the thirteen Keys (see Table 1) is stated as a threshold condition that favors reelection of the incumbent party. The Keys predict winners and losers in presidential elections according to a simple decision rule. When five or fewer keys are false, the incumbent party wins; when any six or more are false, the challenging party wins. Table 2 reports the number of keys turned against the party in power for each of the last five elections. The Table also indicates whether the incumbent or challenged party was a predicted winner according to the Keys. Table 3 reports the number of keys turned against the party in power in the elections from 1860 to 1972.
Table 2: The 13 Keys to the White House: 1976-1996 Results
It should be noted that because the Keys to the White House diagnose the national political environment, they correlate with the popular balloting, not with the votes of individual states in the electoral college. Not since 1888, however, has the popular vote and the electorate college vote diverged in an American presidential election.
For 1996, the incumbent Democrats have eight keys turned in their favor and five keys turned against them (Table 1). Thus, Bill Clinton will defeat Bob Dole except in the improbable event that another key falls before November 5.
The following keys are in the President's favor. It is a plus for the party in power to nominate an incumbent president and to pick their candidate without an internal party fight. As a sitting president who sailed to an uncontested nomination, Clinton earns both the incumbency and the nomination contest key.
During Clinton's term, real per-capita economic growth exceeded the average growth of the previous two terms, giving him the long-term economy key. The absence of an election-year recession gains him the short-term economy key as well.2
The nation has avoided the kind of sustained, violent upheavals of the Civil War era or the 1960's. The social unrest key stays in the President's column.
Clinton narrowly retains the scandal key. Unlike Watergate, for example, neither Whitewater, Filegate nor any other potential scandal has directly implicated the President himself in wrongdoing.
The foreign/military failure key lines up for President Clinton. He has avoided a disaster in foreign or military policy comparable to the Bay of Pigs or the Iran/Hostage crisis.
The challenging candidate, Bob Dole, is short on charisma and, despite his heroic performance in war, he is not a national hero on a par with Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower. The challenger charisma/hero key stays in favor of President Clinton.
The following five keys are turned against the President. He loses the party mandate key because his party holds fewer U.S. House seats than it did during the previous administration.
The repeat candidacy of Ross Perot topples the third-party key. Major third-party candidacies are signs of discontent with the governing of the nation. They also force the incumbent-party candidate to run, in effect, against two challengers.
The President's failure to obtain major health-care reform costs him the policy change key. Welfare reform bears the imprint of the Republican Congress rather than the Democratic president and its long-term significance is unclear.
The absence of a major foreign policy triumph comparable to victory in war or a historic diplomatic breakthrough forfeits the foreign/military success key.
The President also loses the incumbent charisma/hero key. Bill Clinton is a skilled campaigner with a rare ability to identify with ordinary Americans. However, enduring questions about the President's character keep him from achieving historic levels of charisma comparable to Teddy Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy.
Of the keys now lined up for President Clinton only two could conceivably turn against him: scandal and foreign/military failure. Although the loss of one more key would defeat the President, there is nothing Bob Dole can do to bring this about. n
Table 3: How The 13 Keys Turned:
Chronological Record, 1860-1972
*Electoral vote did not coincide with popular vote results.
1This model, which has been widely quoted in the media, was developed by Professor Ray Fair of Yale University. It missed the result of the 1992 election, predicting a near-landslide for George Bush, and also missed the 1976 election with a prediction that Gerald Ford would defeat Jimmy Carter. In 1980, the model produced contradictory results. For further details, see Ray C. Fair, "The Effect of Economic Events on Votes for President," Review of Economics and Statistics 60 (1978): 165; and "The Effect of Economic Events on Votes for President, 1980 Results," Review of Economics and Statistics 64 (1982): 324. For the 1992 election, see Peter G. Gosselin, "The Dangers of Forecasting," Boston Globe May 24, 1992: 29.2Since economists cannot agree on any simple, objective way to gauge the beginning or end-points of recessions, the short-term economy key depends primarily on whether there is the widespread impression of an economy mired in recession during the election campaign.
Allan J. Lichtman is Professor of History at American University, Washington, DC.