The Keys To The White House: Is Obama Unbeatable?

The Keys To The White House: Is Obama Unbeatable?

This story about the 13 keys to the presidency has been getting some play.

Lichtman developed his 13 Keys in 1981. They test the performance of the party that holds the presidency. If six or more of the 13 keys go against the party in power, then the opposing party wins.“The keys have figured into popular politics a bit,” Lichtman says. “They’ve never missed. They’ve been right seven elections in a row. A number that goes way beyond statistical significance in a record no other system even comes close to.”

They’ve been right seven elections in a row about the popular vote. See Wikipedia’s precis of what the Keys predicted for Bush and Gore in 2000. For fair-use reasons, I can’t excerpt Lichtman’s analysis of how the 13 Keys will play out for Obama next year, so follow the link up top and read through. He’s got The One winning on nine of 13 counts:

1. No contested primary
2. Incumbency
3. No third-party candidate
4. Major domestic-policy changes in his first term
5. No social unrest
6. No major scandals
7. No major foreign-policy failures
8. Major foreign-policy achievements in his first term (killing Bin Laden)
9. Little charisma by his likely opponent

The GOP wins three categories:

1. The incumbent’s party lost seats in the last House election
2. The long-term economy looks poor
3. Little charisma by the incumbent

One other criterion, the state of the economy during the campaign, is undecided because no one knows yet how the short-term trends will look.

As it happens, I’ve read Lichtman’s book, Thirteen Keys to the Presidency. Overall, it’s a pretty good book that does have some predictive power — BUT, BUT — the “keys” are a lot more iffy than they appear at first glance. Before or after an election, well meaning people can have a lot of disagreement about what qualifies as tripping a key.

In this case, does the Tea Party movement count as social unrest? Does Operation Fast and Furious, which is already costing people jobs in the White House, count as a major scandal? If both do and as expected, the economy is bad, then suddenly you’re up to six keys. Moreover, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann all have charisma. Unless Mitt Romney wins, the GOP seems likely to have a charismatic candidates. That’s significant, because while Lichtman says his system has predicted the last seven elections, the more likable candidate has won AT LEAST the last nine elections in a row (Nixon vs. McGovern is hard to call). In addition to all of that, #4 is questionable in this case, too. Yes, Obama has certainly made some major domestic policy changes, but on the whole, they were probably the most unpopular major legislative changes in more than 100 years. It’s hard to see how his “Major domestic-policy changes” can be anything but a hindrance for Obama in 2012.

So, is Lichtman’s analysis interesting? Sure. Would I bet the farm on it? Not exactly.

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