Alan Lichtman has been called the Nostradamus of U.S. presidential elections. He has correctly predicted the result of nine of the past 10, and even the one that got away, in 2000, he insists was stolen from Al Gore. He is gearing up for perhaps his greatest challenge: Joe Biden v Donald Trump II.       

      The history professor has been teaching at American University in Washington for half a century. He is a former North American 3,000m steeplechase champion and, at 77, is aiming to compete in the next Senior Olympics.

      In 1981, he developed his now famous 13 keys to the White House, a method for predicting presidential election results. “I’d love to tell you I developed my system by ruining my eyes in the archives, by deep contemplation, but if I were to say that, to quote the late great Richard Nixonthat would be wrong,” Lichtman recalls from a book-crowded office on the AU campus. “Like so many discoveries, it was kind of serendipitous.

      Lichtman was a visiting scholar at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena when he met the world’s leading authority in earthquake prediction, Vladimir Keilis-Borok. Keilis-Borok had fallen in love with American politics and began a collaboration with Lichtman to conceptualise elections in earthquake terms; that is, as a question of stability versus earthquake. Either the party holding the White House stays (stability) or the party holding the White House gets thrown out (earthquake).

      They looked at every presidential election since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, and combined Keilis-Borok’s method of recognising patterns associated with stability and earthquakes, with Lichtman’s theory that elections are basically votes up or down on the strength and performance of the party that holds the White House. They came up with 13 true/false questions and a decision rule: if six or more keys went against the White House party, it would lose. If fewer than six went against it, it would win. The 13 keys, as summarised by AU’s website are:

1. Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the US House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Lichtman then published a book, “The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency”. It was met with derision by the punditry establishment. “When I first developed my system and made my predictions, the professional forecasters blasted me because I had committed the ultimate sin of prediction; the sin of subjectivity. I kept telling them, it’s not subjectivity, it’s judgment. We’re dealing with human systems and historians make judgments all the time, and they’re not random judgments. I define each key very carefully.”

      As another election looms, Lichtman is not impressed by polls that show Trump leading Biden, which is prompting a fatalistic mood to take hold in Washington DC and foreign capitals. “They’re mesmerised by the wrong things, which is the polls. First of all, polls that are conducted six, seven months before an election have zero predictive value. They don’t predict anything and there’s no such thing as, ‘if the election were held today’. That’s a meaningless statement.”

      Lichtman is likely to make his pronouncement on the 2024 presidential election in early August. He notes that Biden already has the incumbency key in his favour and, having crushed token challengers in the Democratic primary, has the contest key too. “That’s two keys off the top. That means six more keys would have to fall to predict his defeat. A lot would have to go wrong for Biden to lose.”

      Lichtman gives no weight to running mate picks and has never changed his forecast in the wake of a so-called “October surprise”. He acknowledges that “Keys are based on history. They’re very robust because they go all the way back to 1860, so they cover enormous changes in our economy, our society, our demography, our politics. However, it’s always possible there could be a cataclysmic-enough event, outside the scope of the keys, that could affect the election. It is true that we do have, for the first time, not just a former president but a major party candidate sitting in a trial. Who knows if he’s convicted – and there’s a good chance he will be – how that might scramble things.”

      Millions of people will be on tenterhooks the night of 5 November. After 40 years of doing this, Lichtman will have one more reason to be anxious. “It’s nerve-racking because there are a lot of people who’d love to see me fail.” And if he does? “I’m human,” he admits. “It doesn’t mean my system’s wrong. Nothing is perfect in the human world.”

      I think this is an interesting perspective, and a system of prediction that has worked far better than any poll.

      We are bombarded, on a nightly basis, by polling predictions put out by every imaginable institution, bonified or otherwise. It’s a relief to know that it might be sensible to just turn off all that “noise”.

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