Allen Lichtman: Updated prediction for 2012
Periodically I have kept Gazette readers informed of the status of the Keys to the White House. This is the presidential prediction system that I first developed in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on the mathematics of prediction models.
Retrospectively, the keys accurately account for the results of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980. Prospectively, the keys predicted well ahead of time the popular-vote winners of all seven presidential elections from 1984 through 2008.
The theory behind the Keys system is that a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president according to the performance of the party holding the White House. If the nation fares well during the term of the incumbent party, that party wins another four years in office; otherwise, the challenging party prevails. Nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls.
The Keys to the White House consist of 13 true-false questions that gauge the performance and strength of the incumbent presidential party. Each key is phrased so that an answer of true always favors re-election of the incumbent party. When five or fewer keys are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
More than a year ago, in this column on March 26, 2010 ("Allan Lichtman's prediction: Obama wins re-election in 2012") I reported that, "enactment of the landmark health care reform bill nearly guarantees President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012." Another recent event has strengthened this forecast: the tracking down and killing of terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden.
The media have been filled with speculation from conventional pundits about the potential influence of this epic event on Obama's prospects for 2012. But none of this punditry is grounded in a solid theory of how presidential elections really work.
In my column of last year I explained that Obama could gain another key by achieving "a foreign policy triumph such as capturing Osama bin Laden." The crack team of Navy Seals that penetrated bin Laden's hiding place killed, rather than captured, the terrorist leader. However, the effect on the Keys is the same. Obama has now secured foreign/military success Key 11.
The capture or killing of bin Laden has been a major objective of American policy for nearly a decade. Few events in recent years have captured such public attention or garnered such a positive response from the American people. Although some Americans feel queasy about celebrating another death, a poll conducted in early May by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans "call themselves proud' about the death of the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
With Key 11 now secure for the party in power, it has only three keys likely turned against it for 2012, three short of the fatal six negative keys. Thus, President Obama could endure additional setbacks and still win re-election, regardless of whom the Republicans nominate next year. This tally also conservatively counts the incumbent charisma Key against Obama, a very close call.
The following 10 keys currently favor the incumbent Democratic Party.
- The lack of any likely nomination challenge to President Obama secures Incumbent Party Contest Key 2.
- Obama's nomination locks up Incumbency Key 3.
- The absence of any likely third-party challenger with chances of winning at least 5 percent of the vote gives the Democrats the third-party Key 4.
- The economy will probably be in the recovery stage in 2012, gaining short-term economy Key 5.
- The enactment of the health care bill secures policy change Key 7.
- The absence of sustained, violent upheavals like those of the 1960s avoids loss of the social unrest Key 8.
- The lack of a major presidential scandal averts the loss of scandal Key 9.
- The president has not suffered a major foreign policy or military failure, comparable to Pearl Harbor or losing the Vietnam War, keeping foreign/military failure Key 10 in line.
- The elimination of bin Laden secures foreign/military success Key 11.
- The lack of a potentially charismatic challenger keeps Democrats from losing the challenger charisma/hero Key 13.
The following three keys now count against the incumbent party:
- The party's losses in the 2010 midterm elections cost it mandate Key 1.
- The weak economy during Obama's first year in office portends the loss of long-term economy Key 6.
- Obama has not quite regained the magic of his campaign, and now falls just short of gaining the incumbent charisma/hero Key 12.
The winning of Key 11 thus strengthens my early prediction that the president will secure re-election in 2012. Only a historically unprecedented reversal of fortune could alter the verdict of the keys.
Allan Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and a national political analyst. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.