The Keys to Election 2000


Allan J. Lichtman

The presidential election of 2000 will be one of the most consequential in the history of the United States. At stake is control over all three branches of the federal government. If Republicans recapture the presidency, they will likely retain control over both houses of Congress and forge a decisive conservative majority on the Supreme Court with several new appointments. Republicans have not enjoyed this kind of control over American political life since the 1920s. Ironically, if Republicans triumph in 2000, then the era of Bill Clinton—who allegedly saved the Democratic party by moving it from the left to the center—will be remembered politically for leaving the party in its worst situation in decades.

However, despite early polls showing Texas governor George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, with a lead in the early national general election polls, Republicans should not yet be preparing their short list of Supreme Court nominees. Early polls predict presidential election results about as accurately as tea leaves, crystal balls, or flipping coins. In 1980, Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by 25 points in a poll taken eight months before election day. In 1998, George Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls less than four months before the election. A poll taken in spring 1992 showed Ross Perot leading both Bill Clinton and George Bush.

To understand what will happen in 2000, forget the polls and pundits and ignore the media’s day-to-day coverage of who is ahead or behind in the campaign. Instead, keep your eye on the big picture of the consequential events that actually decide the outcome of presidential elections. America’s only national elections are not horse races in which candidates surge ahead or fall behind according to campaign events. The choice of a president, history shows, does not turn on debates, advertising, speeches, endorsements, rallies, platforms, promises, or anything that is said or done during a campaign. Rather, presidential elections are primarily referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House; there is little that the challenging party can do to influence the choice of an American president.

The opposition can strive to create negative public impressions of an administration’s performance. This is a difficult task, however, because the public responds not to daily spin control but to the consequential events of a presidential term. The public also heavily discounts as “politics” criticisms of an administration generated by the opposition party.

Despite the negative polls, the record of the Clinton administration is sufficiently strong—if just barely—to enable its nominee to defeat George Bush or any other Republican candidate for president in 2000. However, the incumbent Democrats could still forfeit the election by waging the kind of bloody nomination struggle that invariably has foretold defeat for Democrats seeking to retain the White House. Although he has run an impressive campaign with real momentum, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley—Vice President Al Gore’s only challenger—can only be a spoiler for his party. If Bradley either creates a major internal contest for the Democratic nomination or upsets the vice president, he will have created a situation that spells defeat for the party holding the White House. Bradley could himself win the White House only if the Gore campaign utterly collapsed and, ironically, Bradley became the the consensus Democratic Party nominee.

That is the verdict of the Keys to the White House, a prediction system that is based on the analysis of every American presidential election since 1860. I developed the keys system in 1981 in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on the mathematics of prediction models. The keys assess systematically the performance, strength, and unity of the party holding the White House to determine whether or not it has crossed the threshold that separates victory from defeat.

The keys are thirteen diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer of these propositions are false, the party in power wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins. (See table, “Keys to the White House.”)

Retrospectively, the keys account for the results of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980, or for much longer than any other prediction system. Prospectively, the keys predicted well ahead of time the winners of every presidential election from 1984 through 1996. They called Vice President George Bush’s victory in the spring of 1988 when he was trailing Michael Dukakis in the polls by about the same margin that Gore now lags behind the younger Bush. The vice president defied the polls because voters ultimately ratified the performance of the Reagan administration. Likewise, the Democratic candidate for president in 2000 will win or lose on the record of the Clinton administration and the ability of the party to unite behind that record. No party in the history of the United States has ever retained the White House by running away from its incumbent president.

Unlike prediction models that focus on the economy, the keys measure incumbent party performance across a broad range of concerns. These include political and social developments and foreign policy as well as economics. Americans are not so narrow-minded as to vote their pocketbooks alone. Thus, the party in power may still lose this election even if the economy remains strong through November 2000.

According to the keys, the incumbent Democrats have a mixed record of success. On balance, the party in power now has five keys turned against them for 2000, just one short of the fatal six negative keys. Thus the Democrats can afford no new setback during the next year.

The following seven keys currently favor the incumbent Democratic party.

> By gaining seats in the U.S. House elections of 1998, Democrats secured the party mandate key.

> Unless an unexpectedly strong insurgent candidate emerges who—unlike possible Reform party candidate Patrick Buchanan—does not represent a split in the GOP, the incumbent Democrats will hold the third-party key.

> Unless the economy collapses, Democrats will win the election-year economy key.

> Likewise, given the same circumstances, Democrats will win the long-term economy key.

>iIn the absence of sustained, violent upheavals like those of the 1960s, the incumbent party retains the social unrest key.

> The successful end of the war in Yugoslavia averts loss of the foreign/military failure key.

> Despite leading the Republican field, George W. Bush doesn’t match the charisma of Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, keeping Democrats from losing to the challenger charisma/ hero key.

The following five keys fall against the Democrats:

> With President Clinton ineligible to run again, Democrats lose the incumbent candidate key.

> The stalemate between Clinton and the Republican Congress topples the policy-change key.

> The Lewinsky fiasco costs Democrats the scandal key.

> Despite escaping humiliation in Yugoslavia, the administration still lacks the grand triumph needed to earn the foreign/military success key.

> Neither Al Gore nor former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley has the magic to win the incumbent charisma/hero key.

Thus, the outcome of the election may turn on the only remaining key. This is the still undecided incumbent party contest key, which falls unless the nominee of the incumbent party controls at least two-thirds of the delegates and wins a first ballot victory at the party’s convention. Since 1860, the party contest key, among all thirteen keys, has been the best single predictor of victory or defeat for incumbent administrations. It has such predictive power because an internal party battle both reflects the incumbent party’s own lack of confidence in its performance in office and shatters the unity needed to convince voters to maintain the status quo.

In contrast, battles for the challenging party nomination do not subvert the out-party’s chance to recapture the White House. A vigorous challenging party usually has multiple presidential contenders, each of whom professes to have the skills, personality, and policies needed to regain the White House. A spirited out-party contest for the presidential nomination might even signify the vulnerability of the party in power, as candidates compete for what appears to be a promising nomination. The greatest popular vote victory by a challenging party candidate in American history was achieved by Republican Warren Harding in 1920, after a deadlocked convention nominated him as a compromise candidate on the 10th ballot.

The contest key has been especially accurate in predicting victory or defeat for Democrats in years when they held the White House. In seven out of eight elections since 1860 in which incumbent Democrats won the contest key, they kept control of the White House. The only exception is 1888, when President Grover Cleveland captured the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.

By contrast, all six times that the incumbent Democrats lost this key, they lost the White House as well. In 1860, Democrats nominated Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas after two divided conventions and the defection of pro-slavery southern states. Douglas carried only four states in losing to Republican Abraham Lincoln.

In 1896, during a devastating depression, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan won a fifth ballot nomination after his stirring “Cross of Gold” speech repudiated the policies of the Cleveland administration. But the premier orator of his times couldn’t overcome the burden of a “Democratic depression” and lost to William McKinley.

In 1920, after Woodrow Wilson’s two terms, Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox after 44 ballots. Cox won less than 40 percent of the popular vote in losing to Warren Harding. In 1952, party pros rejected the rank-and-file favorite, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, and gave a third-ballot nomination to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who lost to war hero Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1968, the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy splintered the Democratic party. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, nominated in the divisive convention in Chicago, lost a close contest to Richard Nixon. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter withstood a challenge from his left by Senator Edward Kennedy, but lost badly to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.

In several losing elections, the internal squabbling of Democrats demonstrated that the incumbent party’s own leadership and most loyal voters perceived deficiencies in presidential performance: for example, Cleveland’s mismanagement of the depression-ridden economy of the 1890s, Wilson’s miscarried peacemaking after World War I, Truman’s failure to end the Korean War, Johnson’s failed Vietnam policies, and Carter’s inability to reverse economic decline at home and sinking prestige abroad.

Other keys, of course, could conceivably change direction before Election 2000. An economic decline, an unforeseen calamity abroad, or an unexpectedly strong third-party candidacy could turn a fatal sixth key against the Democrats. Conversely, the party could recapture a lost key through major policy change (saving social security) or a triumph in world affairs (solving the Middle East problem).

Thus, at a time when polls are of no value, the Keys to the White House indicate precisely what to look for in assessing next year’s presidential election. Barring the kinds of surprises cited above, Democrats will win in 2000 if, and only if, they unite around a single presidential candidate. Otherwise, Republicans will win the presidency, likely retain both houses of Congress, and make several Supreme Court appointments, thereby controlling American public life at the turn of the 21st century. G


Allan J. Lichtman is chair of the Department of History at American University in Washington, D. C.

The Keys to the White House


The keys are statements that favor the reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer statements are false, the incumbent party wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins. This table shows the current status of the keys to Election 2000.


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. (TRUE)


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


KEY 3 (incumbency): The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. (FALSE)


KEY 4 (third party): There is no significant third-party or independent campaign. (TRUE)


 KEY 5 (short-term economy): The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. (TRUE)


KEY 6 (long-term economy): Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. (TRUE)


KEY 7 (policy change): The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. (FALSE)


KEY 8 (social unrest): There is no sustained social unrest during the term. (TRUE)


KEY 9 (scandal): The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. (FALSE)


KEY 10 (foreign/military failure): The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. (TRUE)


KEY 11 (foreign/military success): The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. (FALSE)


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


KEY 13 (challenger charisma): The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. (TRUE)



©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.