Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, created his “13 Keys to the White House” more than 30 years ago—and he’s ready to predict who will win in 2016. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
Nobody knows for certain who will win on Nov. 8 — but one man is pretty sure: Professor Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted every presidential election since 1984.
And this year, he says, Donald Trump is the favorite to win.
About Allan Lichtman.
Author and commentator
Lichtman is the author or co-author of nine books and more than 100 articles. He is best known for the “Keys” system, presented in his books The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency and The Keys to the White House. The system uses thirteen historical factors to predict whether or not the popular vote in the election for President of the United States will be won by the candidate of the party holding the presidency (regardless of whether the President is the candidate).
The keys were selected based on their correlations with the presidential election results from 1860 through 1980, using statistical methods adapted from the work of geophysicist Vladimir Keilis-Borok for predicting earthquakes. The system then correctly predicted the popular vote winner in each of the elections of 1984 through 2012, including 2000.
Lichtman has provided commentary for networks and cable channels such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. He was the regular political analyst for CNN Headline News.
He is also a fifteen-year columnist for Maryland’s Journal and Gazette newspapers. He has lectured across the world and been cited hundreds of times by leading newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun.
Awards and honors
Lichtman has received numerous awards at American University during his career. Most notably, he was named Distinguished Professor of History in 2011 and Outstanding Scholar/Teacher for 1992-93, the highest faculty award at that school. Honors include:
- Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Visiting Scholar, California Institute of Technology, 1980–81
- Top Speaker Award, National Convention of the International Platform Association, 1983, 1984, 1987
- Selected by the Teaching Company as one of America’s “Super Star Teachers”
- Outstanding Scholar/Teacher, 1992–93
- Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for White Protestant Nation, the Rise of the American Conservative Movement, 2008
- Distinguished Professor of History at American University, 2011
On being appointed distinguished professor: “AU reserves this recognition for only a very few faculty, those whose scholarship has, over the long arc of their careers, been so deeply influential that it has remade their fields of knowledge. This rings true for both Distinguished Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman,” says Pamela Nadell, chair of the Department of History. “The Department of History celebrates their appointments, and takes great pride in becoming what well [sic] be the only department on campus with two Distinguished Professors.”
Description of distinguished professor from the American University website: “The rank of Distinguished Professor honors American University faculty who have produced extraordinary and exceptional scholarship that has earned national and international renown…The rank of Distinguished Professor is awarded on a highly selective basis; it is not a routine promotion for faculty who have already achieved the rank of Professor.”
Also, in the early 1980s while living in California as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, Lichtman had a 17-show stint on the game show Tic Tac Dough. He won $100,000 during his time on the show
When we sat down in May (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post), he explained how he comes to a decision. Lichtman’s prediction isn’t based on horse-race polls, shifting demographics or his own political opinions. Rather, he uses a system of true/false statements he calls the “Keys to the White House” to determine his predicted winner.
And this year, he says, Donald Trump is the favorite to win.
The keys, which are explained in depth in Lichtman’s book “Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House 2016” are:
- Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
- Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
- Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
- Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
- Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
- Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
- Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
- Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
- Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
- Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
- Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
- Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
- Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, sat down with The Fix this week to reveal who he thinks will win in November and why 2016 was the most difficult election to predict yet. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: Can you tell me about the keys, and how you use them to evaluate the election from the point where — I assume it’s very murky a year or two out, and they start to crystallize over the course of the election.
LICHTMAN: “The Keys to the White House” is a historically based prediction system. I derived the system by looking at every American presidential election from 1860 to 1980, and have since used the system to correctly predict the outcomes of all eight American presidential elections from 1984 to 2012.
The keys are 13 true/false questions, where an answer of “true” always favors the reelection of the party holding the White House, in this case the Democrats. And the keys are phrased to reflect the basic theory that elections are primarily judgments on the performance of the party holding the White House. And if six or more of the 13 keys are false — that is, they go against the party in power — they lose. If fewer than six are false, the party in power gets four more years.
So people who hear just the surface-level argument there might say, well, President Obama has a 58 percent approval rating, doesn’t that mean the Democrats are a shoo-in? Why is that wrong?
It absolutely does not mean the Democrats are a shoo-in. First of all, one of my keys is whether or not the sitting president is running for reelection, and right away, they are down that key. Another one of my keys is whether or not the candidate of the White House party is, like Obama was in 2008, charismatic. Hillary Clinton doesn’t fit the bill.
The keys have nothing to do with presidential approval polls or horse-race polls, with one exception, and that is to assess the possibility of a significant third-party campaign.
What about Donald Trump on the other side? He’s not affiliated with the sitting party, but has his campaign been an enigma in terms of your ability to assess this election?
Donald Trump has made this the most difficult election to assess since 1984. We have never before seen a candidate like Donald Trump, and Donald Trump may well break patterns of history that have held since 1860.
We’ve never before seen a candidate who’s spent his life enriching himself at the expense of others. He’s the first candidate in our history to be a serial fabricator, making up things as he goes along. Even when he tells the truth, such as, “Barack Obama really was born in the U.S.,” he adds two lines, that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement, and that he finished it, even though when Barack Obama put out his birth certificate, he didn’t believe it. We’ve never had a candidate before who not just once, but twice in a thinly disguised way, has incited violence against an opponent. We’ve never had a candidate before who’s invited a hostile foreign power to meddle in American elections. We’ve never had a candidate before who’s threatened to start a war by blowing ships out of the water in the Persian Gulf if they come too close to us. We’ve never had a candidate before who has embraced as a role model a murderous, hostile foreign dictator. Given all of these exceptions that Donald Trump represents, he may well shatter patterns of history that have held for more than 150 years, lose this election even if the historical circumstances favor it…
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Allan Lichtman’s Books
- Historians And The Living Past: The Theory And Practice Of Historical Study (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1978; With Valerie French)
- Ecological Inference (With Laura Irwin Langbein, Sage Series In Quantitative Applications In The Social Sciences, 1978)
- Your Family History: How To Use Oral History, Personal Family Archives, And Public Documents To Discover Your Heritage (New York: Random House, 1978)
- Prejudice And The Old Politics: The Presidential Election Of 1928 (Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1979; Lexington Books, 2000)
- Kin And Communities: Families In America (Edited, With Joan Challinor, Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Press, 1979)
- The Thirteen Keys To The Presidency (Lanham: Madison Books, 1990, With Ken Decell) ISBN 978-0-8191-7008-8
- The Keys To The White House, 1996 Edition (Lanham: Madison Books, 1996; reprint, Lexington Books Edition, 2000) ISBN 978-0-7391-0179-7
- White Protestant Nation: The Rise of The American Conservative Movement, (Finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award in non-fiction, 2008) Grove/Atlantic Press. ISBN 978-0-87113-984-9
- FDR & the Jews,” (Co-authored with Richard Breitman. Harvard University Press, 2013)