An Interview with Allan Lichtman
Features Editor Ishaan Rahman interviews Professor Allan Lichtman about how he
correctly predicted every US presidential race since 1984
In November last year, Americans voted in yet another tense presidential race. Most polls and
pundits were confident in a decisive win for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But election
night did not go to plan. While Biden eventually emerged victorious, President Donald
Trump significantly over performed expectations securing several key battleground states.
This is the third election in a row in which polls had been significantly off: they
previously underestimated President Barack Obama's re-election prospects and
infamously predicted a landslide for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Professor Allan Lichtman, who teaches modern American history and quantitative methods at
American University in Washington D.C., came up with an alternative method for predicting
elections in the early 1980s. Since then, he has successfully foreseen the winner of every
presidential race. And yes, that includes Donald Trump's shock win four years ago.
Lichtman's method is unorthodox; it does not rely on polling data nor take into account
campaign politics, such as gaffes or debates. Instead, through his research, he came to the
conclusion that voters make their choices based on how the incumbent party has governed the
country. His model, The Keys to the White House, predicts elections outcomes based on 13
true or false statements, or 'keys', of governance. If six or more keys are false, the incumbent
party loses the election.
Roar sat down with Professor Lichtman to ask him about his prediction method, the Joe
Biden presidency and what concerns he has for the future.
You're most famous for your 13 Keys prediction method. What led you to the conclusion that governance, not campaign politics, decides elections?
"Yes, the startling but positive conclusion of The Keys is that governing not campaigning
counts. I know that would put a lot of my friends out of business, but it's a very uplifting
result for the American people. Now, I came about this by a rather circuitous route. I would
love to tell you I came up with this system from years of brilliant contemplation but, to quote
the late, no-so-great [President Richard] Nixon 'that would be wrong'. I came across The
Keys, at least in-part, by accident."
It was in 1981 that Lichtman met a Russian geophysicist, specializing in earthquakes, Vladimir Keilis-Borok. Keilis-Borok suggested applying methods used to predict earthquakes to US Presidential contests and their collaboration began. "We became the odd couple of political research" Lichtman said.
Lichtman's belief that governance not campaigning decides elections was not proven at the
time. Though his study of the 1896 Election, where William McKinley defeated the
"maverick, populist" Democratic candidate William Jennings-Bryan, began to confirm his
"Bryan was the great campaigner of his time. He stumped the country [while] McKinley was
stuck in the mud running a front porch campaign from his home. Yet McKinley still beat
Bryan because, as much [Bryan] out-campaigned McKinley he was still stuck with the
At the time, America was grappling with economic downturn under Democratic President
Grover Cleveland. His poor governance gave McKinley, a Republican, the win in the
election. So stellar campaigning and populist messaging could not compensate for a failed
Presidency, Lichtman theorized. But it was Keilis-Borok's expertise on earthquakes that gave
rise to The Keys.
"The other big insight was to reconceptualize presidential elections in earthquake terms. Not
as Carter vs. Reagan, liberal vs. conservative or Democrat vs. Republican but as stability,
where the [incumbent] party keeps control, and earthquake, when the party is turned out
Lichtman and Keilis-Borok then looked at every presidential election from 1860 to 1980 and,
using pattern recognition techniques from earthquake science, came up with the current Keys
to the White House which gauged the re-election prospects of the incumbent party based on
The 13 keys include many aspects of governance including the performance of the economy,
foreign policy successes and failures, major scandals, social unrest and the extent of policy
changes. However, a candidate's charisma, Midterm Election performance and whether a
candidate is the incumbent President also play a role.
If six of more keys go against the incumbent party, or in other words are deemed 'false', they
are predicted to lose the election as happened in 1896. In 2016 there were seven false keys,
meaning that the incumbent party at the time, the Democratic Party, would lose the next
election, resulting in Trump's upset win. Likewise, in 2020, the incumbent Republican Party
had seven false keys resulting in their loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November that year.
The Keys judge election results based on governance. In 2020, many emphasized Biden's appeal amongst rust-belt voters or Trump's polarizing personality that handed Democrats the win. Your model would actually suggest that it had nothing to do with the candidates but simply the Coronavirus economic crash, is that right?
"Absolutely correct. You know Democrats would love to say it's our great candidate, it's our
wonderful issues that carried us. They all had those same issues, you know four years ago and
they still lost. Its governance not campaigning that counts as much as that may bruise the ego
of candidates and political operatives. A very close friend of mine, I've known him for over
50 years, is Robert Shrub...until recently he was the leading Democratic consultant. And
when I first came up with the keys back in 1981 I gave them to Robert Shrub and he calls me
back a few days later. And he said 'Lichtman I hate The Keys, find your crazy Russian friend
again and redo them and come up with something I can manipulate'. The Keys are not
There's an inevitability to US elections then despite all the nervous anticipation. Presidential
races are immune to dirty tactics and partisan scandals and are only impacted by genuine
issues. In 2020, it was not Trump's divisiveness that led his party to defeat, but the economic
downturn due to the Coronavirus pandemic; a rather simple explanation. Prior to the pandemic, Trump only had four keys against him, meaning he was headed for a successful re-
election. Though with the Coronavirus recession and social unrest from Black Lives Matter protests, a further three keys were turned 'false', which Lichtman called "an unprecedented
reversal of fortune."
Lichtman admits that this model has put him at odds with many in his field. He has gotten
into rather public quarrels with the statistician Nate Silver. Silver founded FiveThirtyEight a
website that uses conventional polling data to predict elections. Though he has drawn some
praise, Silver's model gave Hillary Clinton an over 70% chance of defeating Trump in the
2016 Election, which was quite off the mark. In 2010, Silver took issue with Lichtman's early
prediction of the 2012 Election between Obama and Mitt Romney.
"I saw things were going well enough for Obama that I made my call that he would be re-
elected and that was a very tough election to call as you know down to the wire the polls
were showing Romney winning. I made my 2012 Election call back in 2010, which caused
Nate Silver to write a twenty page attack on The Keys, saying 'you can't predict this early'.
My response was 'YOU can't predict using polls'...[Silver's] a publicity hound, he's not one of
my favorite people...he was horribly wrong in 2016 and 2020."
In November 2012, Obama was re-elected by an unexpectedly large margin over Romney.
This is another example of The Keys going against the consensus among political pundits.
Given that The Keys put little emphasis on the candidate's characteristics, what do you make of the
debate within the Democratic Party as to whether they should nominate moderates or progressives?
"If there was one word I would eliminate from political discussion, well there are a couple of
them, but among the words I would eliminate from political discussion is 'electability'. That is
the most misleading concepts because The Keys show that unless you're a John F Kennedy or
Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the candidate comes around, you know, once in a
generation the, candidate doesn't matter."
"There's no such thing as electability. You know Biden the moderate wins, right? So the
convention was all 'you need to be a moderate'. Well, Clinton the moderate lost. [John] Kerry,
the moderate lost. Al Gore the moderate lost...What I always tell voters is vote for who you
believe in. Never vote on electability because that's a trap."
So according to Lichtman, Democrats should stop focusing on the ideology of their candidate
and more on governance. It's worth noting that The Keys predicted the same 2020 Election outcome whether Joe Biden, a relative moderate, was the Democratic candidate or if a self-
described "democratic socialist" like Bernie Sanders was. This despite the fact that Biden frequently touted his unique ability to defeat Trump in the general election.
The only personal characteristics The Keys take into account are the charisma of both the
incumbent party and challenger candidate. If a candidate's charisma appeals to a broad range
of voters, it works in their favor. Though this is rare; Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are
the only candidates since the 1980s to have had this key turned 'true'. As Lichtman
mentioned, classic examples of 'charismatic' candidates include John F. Kennedy and
Lichtman had a similar attitude to divisions within the Republican Party even though many
commentators argued that Trump alienated moderate, suburban voters. The Keys would
actually suggest that whether Republicans nominate Trump or someone else in 2024, their
chances depend on Biden's record in office, not on their candidate. That is, unless they find
an inspirational, "charismatic" candidate that The Keys recognize. Though that is unlikely,
However, Lichtman explains that Presidential elections are unique and that voter outreach, to
moderates, ethnic minorities and others can play a role in Congressional and other elections.
"One of the interesting things was Biden did well with suburban voters. Yes, that's true.
But why did Democrats take such a beating in suburban districts in the House [of
Representatives]? Presidential elections, another message of the keys, are unique. They are
unlike any other type of election. The conventional wisdom doesn't recognize that, which is
why Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon would win huge landslides, you know 60% of the
vote, but not win the Houses of Congress.
One of the 13 keys is 'Major Policy Change', a particularly challenging key for Presidents to achieve. Do you think that President Biden has made the necessary policy changes to benefit him and his party in the next election?
"This is a hard key to achieve but actually polarized politics makes it easier right to achieve
as we see with Biden. Everything that Trump did he's overturned. So he's already achieved
the policy change game...bringing us back into the climate accords, overturning so many
executive orders on the environment, on immigration, passing with not a single Republican
vote this $1.9 trillion [Coronavirus Stimulus] bill."
Biden accomplishing major policy change in the first two months of his Presidency is
impressive. Presidents, such as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, failed to make substantial
enough changes in eight years, according to The Keys. Though large divides between
Democrats and Republicans on climate change action, immigration reform and, recently,
Covid-19, make major policy changes easier. It's worth noting that policy changes benefit the
incumbent party regardless of if they are popular. Even controversial legislation such as
Obamacare and Trump's 2017 tax cuts turned this key 'true'. Lichtman also had something to
say on the next election.
"I'm gonna give you a big secret. Everyone's talking about Biden being a one-term President.
The guy's even older than me and I'm as old as dust. However, if the Democrats want to win
again in 2024, The Keys say their best bet is to renominate Biden. Again, totally
counterintuitive as The Keys always are. But here's why. One the keys is incumbency, you
win the incumbency you lose it otherwise. Another key is internal party battles, there's not
going to be a big internal battle against a sitting President but if Biden doesn't run, Kamala
Harris is not just gonna to walk into the nomination, there's gonna be a big battle."
This is another example of the The Keys bucking the conventional wisdom. Many have said
that Biden's age would disadvantage his party if he were to seek a second-term. Vice
President Kamala Harris is widely believed to be eyeing the Democratic nomination in 2024,
though others have also expressed interest. However, if the economy remains strong and no
major scandal arises, the Democrats led by Joe Biden would have around 9-10 keys in their favor, more than enough to be re-elected. Lichtman clearly stated that he's not making a
prediction this early though.
Lastly, you have said that foreign interference and voter suppression can disrupt an election result, meaning it could give a different outcome than the The Keys predict. Do you think that misinformation, foreign or domestic, and strict voting laws being implemented could subvert the next election?
"Voters are smart. They're not tricked, they're not fooled, they're not swindled. They
understand what's going on in the country. Voters understood in 2020 the disastrous effects of
the Covid-19 pandemic on our economic wellbeing. They understood the failures of the
[Trump] administration to address racial injustice and none of the tricks of the campaign
really penetrated through that. But what does worry me would be if foreign adversaries
actually meddled with the voting processes or the voting results that could just change
Lichtman believes that voters have "triumphed" over misinformation in recent elections.
While large minorities of Americans do believe in discredited conspiracy theories and
the FBI confirmed that Russia interfered in US elections, he says that, ultimately, it is not
enough to sway large-scale presidential contests. Though he still cites concerns about
interference and misinformation and believes much more should be done about it.
On the issue of voter suppression affecting Presidential elections, Lichtman's tone is similar
even as Republican-controlled states enact Jim Crow-esque voting laws.
"I am certainly concerned about [voter suppression] but do I think it will change The Keys?
No. But do I think it's likely to affect other elections? We saw a lot of [House of
Representatives] elections were decided by six votes in one case...and so I am very much
worried about voter suppression effecting all elections but presidential races. I think the tides
are probably too big though we'll have to see how devastating this voter suppression is. Now,
there is a flip side to voter suppression and that is it sparks a backlash. Minority leaders like
Stacey Abrams use voter suppression to get out the minority vote."
Georgia politician Stacey Abrams led a successful effort to register black and minority
voters in her state. She has been widely credited for President Joe Biden's victory in Georgia
as well as the election of two Democratic senators.However, one glaring example of voter suppression is the 2000 Election. At the time, Lichtman's Keys pointed in favor of Democratic candidate Al Gore defeating George W. Bush. Though after a contentious recount in Florida and a Supreme Court intervention, Bush was declared the winner. Lichtman argues that voter suppression played a role in Bush's win, a claim that has been credited with research.
Overall, the once rejected Keys to the White House have become something rare in political
punditry: reliable. Lichtman's record is impressive by any measure and his method has been
able to withstand vast changes in the political landscape since the 1980s, including
technology, partisanship and foreign meddling. In an era of political turbulence, The
Keys make a good companion.
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