Election 2000 The Keys Point to Gore


Allan J. Lichtman

To understand what is really going on in the presidential election of 2000 it is first necessary to ignore the ubiquitous polls and the day-to-day coverage of the campaign. Presidential elections are not decided by how well candidates perform on the campaign trial, but by how well the party in power has governed during the three and a half years before the campaign begins. A pragmatic American electorate decides in each presidential election whether or not the record of the incumbent party merits a new term in office.

Based on the performance of the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore will be the next president of the United States. There is little or nothing that challenging-party candidate Texas Governor George W. Bush can do to revive his presidential prospects.

A predicted Gore victory this Fall is the verdict of the Keys to the White House, a forecasting system based on the study of every American presidential election since 1860. The Keys gauge the strength, unity, and performance of the party in power, disclosing whether that party has crossed the threshold separating victory from defeat.

I first developed the Keys to the White House in 1981 in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on prediction models. Retrospectively, the Keys account for presidential election outcomes from 1860 to 1980. Prospectively, the Keys have predicted well ahead the results of elections from 1984 to 1996. The same pragmatic criteria that accounted for the victory of Abraham Lincoln over Stephen Douglas in the horse and buggy days of American politics, also predicted Bill Clinton’s victory over Bob Dole in the era of television, polls, jet planes, and the Internet.

The Keys are 13 true-or-false 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.

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 pocketbook alone.

In an article published in the November/December 1999 issue of Social Education I used the keys to forecast the results of the presidential election of 2000. This was long before the parties chose their nominees and long before the polls or any other forecasting model could provide any reliable insight into election results. In that article I observed that “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.” The Democrats could forfeit the election only by waging a “bloody nomination struggle.”

No such struggle ensued this year, as Vice President Al Gore trounced former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary and caucus contests. Gore wrapped up his party’s nomination on “Super Tuesday”— March 7, 2000—and unified the incumbent party behind his leadership. By securing the Democratic nomination without a protracted and divisive struggle, Gore virtually secured his victory in a general election that would not take place for another eight months.

The incumbent Democrats now have eight keys lined up in their favor and five keys counted against them—one key short of the six negative keys needed to predict the incumbent party’s defeat. In principle, although not likely in practice, two keys could still change direction.

Although it is unlikely, consumer activist Ralph Nader could conceivably engineer the defeat of Al Gore if his insurgent presidential campaign nets him the 5 percent or more of the popular vote needed to turn the third-party key against the party in power. The need to blunt Nader’s appeal to progressive-minded voters helps explain why Gore delivered a speech at the Democratic Convention that observers described as “libera#148; and “populist.”

Although Nader has surpassed the 5 percent threshold in some polls, third-party candidates tend to fade in the voting booth as voters focus on the major-party contenders. Based on the experience of past elections, third-party candidates generally receive a popular vote percentage equal to about half of their largest percentage in the pre-election polls. This rule would put Nader below 5 percent on Election Day.

It is also possible, although unlikely, that the Democrats could recapture the foreign policy success key if a credible and comprehensive Middle East settlement were achieved before November. This would reduce the deficit of the party in power from five to four keys, ensuring a Gore victory regardless of the outcome of the Nader campaign.

Ironically, George W. Bush may lose this election and the chance to establish a Bush dynasty for the same reason that his father, George H. W. Bush, won the presidency in 1988. This year, Bush is in a similar position not to his father, but to his father’s 1988 challenger, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Like Dukakis, Bush is battling a sitting Vice President, leading a unified incumbent party at a time of prosperity, peace, and tranquility at home. Like Dukakis, moreover, he has failed to abandon conventional politics in favor of bold and creative initiatives designed to alter the basis on which the electorate makes its decision.

Thus, on balance, barring a most improbable turn of events, the American people will ratify the record of the current Democratic administration this year and elect Al Gore president of the United States. G


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



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.


4 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)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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