A Way-Too-Early Look at Allan Lichtman’s 13 Keys to the White House in 2020

Written by on March 18, 2019

by Thomas Neuburger

As a companion to this piece, “A Way-Too-Early Handicapping of the 2020 Presidential Race,” I’d like to offer a look at Allan Lichtman’s famous 13 keys to the White House and see where the contest stands at this early date.

A quick summary: Lichtman’s keys are a series of true-or-false propositions, mainly about the party in power. If five or fewer of the thirteen statements is false — meaning eight or more is true — the incumbent party is predicted to win the popular vote. If six or more statements are false — meaning seven or fewer are true — the challenger is predicted to win.

Note: In cases where the incumbent party has exactly five negative keys, the Electoral College vote could go either way, depending on the candidate and other circumstances. 

Candidates with exactly 5 negative keys who run stellar or at least highly competent campaigns, even when faced with the very real possibility of losing the electoral college (Truman in 1948, Bill Clinton in 1996) can seal an electoral college victory on top of their popular vote win. Candidates with exactly five negative keys who don’t campaign, run a poor campaign, or take their win in certain states for granted (Grover Cleveland in 1888, Al Gore in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016) typically lose the electoral college, even if they do win the popular vote.

The exception, of course, is the corrupt election of 1876.

Thirteen Keys to the 2020 Presidential Election

Here are Lichtman’s thirteen keys and their way-too-early application to the election of 2020.
Remember, if the statement is true, the key favors the Republican. If the statement is false, the key favors the Democrat. The Republican needs to keep the numbers of false statements to five or fewer.

1. 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.

False. In 2016 the Democrats retook the House of Representatives.

2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

True, at least so far. Lichtman defines “no serious contest” as one in which the incumbent party’s nominee holds two-thirds of the convention delegates at the start of the convention. Even if a President Pence is the Republican nominee, I’d expect no serious convention challenge.

3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

True. This key will also be true if Trump is deposed or resigns and Pence becomes president.

4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

Unknown and could go either way. This key is defined as true if a single third-party candidate gets at least 5% of the vote. (See here for an explanation of Lichtman’s modification of this key with respect to the 2016 election.)

5. Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

True so far.

6. Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

True (see chart here).

7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

True. Consider the Trump administration’s China and trade policies.

8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

False. I would discount the great unrest in the press as signalling great general unrest, but still, the desire for change in the electorate is as this cycle as it was in 2016. Both party’s candidates will have to be, or pretend to be, for “change.” In Trump’s case, the pitch will be “I have more of the job of changing things left to do.”

9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

False. The genuine scandals, as opposed to general media Trumpophobia, are numerous and serious.

10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

True so far, at least in the eyes of the public. Domestic concerns dominate the polling on “most important issues.”

11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

False so far. Could a viable treaty with North Korea turn this key to True? That’s uncertain, just as it’s uncertain that Trump’s war cabinet would allow such a treaty to be signed.

12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

True. While Lichtman’s models and standards for presidential charisma are the two Roosevelts, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Trump is as wildly popular among his supporters as he is unpopular among his opponents. Let’s mark this True.

(In the so-far unlikely event that Mike Pence or anyone other than Trump is the nominee, this key becomes False.)

13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

False if Sanders is the nominee by the same criteria as key 12. (Elizabeth Warren has not recaptured the star power she once had, at least not so far.)

True if Sanders is not the nominee. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan are high bars. (It’s highly unlikely that Beto O’Rourke will be the nominee, but if so, this key could turn to False.)

Totals

Our summary so far looks like this:

Key 1. False
Key 2. True so far
Key 3. True
Key 4. Unknown
Key 5. True so far
Key 6. True
Key 7. True
Key 8. False
Key 9. False
Key 10. True so far
Key 11. False so far
Key 12. True
Key 13. True if Sanders is not the nominee

Which yields these totals:

Republicans: 8 true if Sanders is not the nominee; 7 if Sanders is not the nominee.
Democrats: 4 false if Sanders is not the nominee; 5 if he is.

while the third-party key remains very much in doubt.

Conclusions

This race stands on a knife edge, at least this early in the contest. If the Democrats nominate someone other than Sanders (or perhaps Warren), the Republicans hold 8 keys, enough to win the popular vote, with the Electoral College in doubt, at least according to Lichtman’s system. 

The wildcards are these:

Key 2 favors Trump so far. Will there be a primary challenge to Trump? Mark this unlikely.

Key 4 is unknown. Will there be a significant third-party candidate?

Key 5 favors Trump so far. Will there be a recession this year or next? Mark that unlikely; remember, Trump’s people control the economy.

Keys 10 and 11 are split between the parties. Will the administration suffer a major foreign or military failure? It hasn’t so far. Will it achieve a foreign or military success? It hasn’t so far.

And finally, Key 13 favors the Republican if the Democrats nominate any lackluster candidate who runs on an “I’m not Trump, and I’m sorta like Sanders” platform. Mark that likely.

If Lichtman’s system is right, the Republicans already have enough to win the popular vote. No recession, a military success (a major peace treaty for example), and a non-charismatic Democratic candidate could turn this squeaker into an Electoral College win for the Republicans as well. Mark me worried.
 


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