The Keys to the White House

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The Keys to the White House
The Keys to the White House.jpg
The Keys to the White House
AuthorAllan Lichtman
CountryUnited States
SubjectPolitical science
PublisherMadison Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)

The Keys to the White House is a 1996 book about a historically based prediction system for determining the outcome of presidential elections in the United States. The system, inspired by earthquake research,[1] was developed in 1981[2] by American historian Allan Lichtman and Russian scientist Vladimir Keilis-Borok, an authority on the mathematics of prediction models. The model has a record of accurate forecasts but has been criticised by some statisticians as including too many predictors to be a sound model and for forecasting only the winner of elections rather than the vote share of the winning party.[3]

Prediction system[edit]

The Keys are based on the theory that presidential election results turn primarily on the performance of the party controlling the White House and that campaigning by challenging or incumbent-party candidates will have no impact on results. According to this theory, a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president based on the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term – economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation.

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. According to the Keys model, nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts conventional electioneering as political spin, has changed his or her prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies count for virtually nothing on Election Day.

Through the application of pattern recognition methodology used in geophysics to data for American presidential elections from 1860 (the first election with a four-year record of competition between Republicans and Democrats) Lichtman and Keilis-Borok developed 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer of these propositions 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.

Unlike many alternative models, the Keys include no polling data, but are based on the big picture of how well the party in power and the country are faring prior to an upcoming election. In addition, the Keys do not presume that voters are driven by economic concerns alone. Voters are less narrow-minded and more sophisticated than that; they decide presidential elections on a wide-ranging assessment of the performance of incumbent parties, all of which are reflected in one or more Keys.

Answers to the questions posed in the Keys require the kinds of judgments that historians typically make about the past. But the judgments are constrained by explicit definitions of each Key. For example, a contested incumbent party nomination is defined as one in which the losing candidates combined secured at least one-third of the delegate votes. Judgments are also constrained by how individual keys have been turned in all 37 previous elections covered by the system. For example, to qualify as charismatic and turn key 12 or 13 – the most judgmental of all keys – an incumbent or challenging-party candidate must measure up to Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. The system is also extremely robust as the same keys that predicted Abraham Lincoln’s defeat of Stephen Douglas in 1860 also predicted George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry in 2004, despite vast changes in American politics, society, demographic composition, and economic life.

This forecast is incorporated in the PollyVote.

Track record[edit]

The Keys retroactively account for the popular vote winners of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980 and prospectively forecast the popular-vote winners of all eight presidential elections from 1984 through 2012.[1] The Keys model predicted George W. Bush’s reelection in April 2003, nearly a year before any other scientific model. In the late spring of 1988, the Keys predicted George H. W. Bush’s victory when he trailed Democrat Michael Dukakis by 17 percentage points in the polls. It predicted Bill Clinton’s win in the complex three-candidate election of 1992. In six elections, the keys have predicted three Republican and three Democratic victories in the popular vote.

In the contested election of 2000, the system predicted the popular vote winner although not actual winners. As a result in 2000, he wrongly predicted using his system that Gore would be the next president.[4] What happened was five keys turned against Gore, the Democrats were just one key short of a predicted defeat. However, a fatal sixth key, Third Party Key 4, could conceivably have turned against the party holding the White House. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader surpassed the 5 percent threshold in some polls, However, the rule of thumb for third-party contenders is that they usually finish at about half their peak poll percentage because of the voters’ reluctance to back a nearly certain loser. Nader finished with 2.7% of the popular vote, just short of the threshold needed to topple Key 4. However, Nader won more than 97,000 votes in the state of Florida, more than enough to cost Gore a victory (and the presidency) in a state that Bush won by 537 votes.

In September 2016, the Keys forecasted that Donald Trump would win the popular vote in the 2016 election, if and only if the main third party candidates (Gary Johnson) won more than 5% of the vote. The third party candidates reaching the 5% threshold would have dealt Clinton the critical sixth key necessary for her to lose the popular vote. Shortly before the first debate, when Gary Johnson was polling about 12 to 14 percent using the system, Lichtman cut it down to half making it about 7% [5] so Lichtman issued a public prediction that Trump would win the election—one of the few election forecasters at the time who believed Trump would win.[5] Earlier in the year, after the first debate, when support for third party candidates plunged nationwide, Clinton was left with only 5 negative keys, enough to win the popular vote according to Lichtman's model.[6]

Popular vote versus electoral college[edit]

Lichtman's keys are predominantly a predictor of the popular vote, however limited predictions can be made from the model about whether the electoral college outcome and popular vote might diverge. Specifically, while Lichtman's model says (accurately) that any candidate with eight or more positive keys and five or fewer negative keys will win the popular vote, any candidate with exactly eight positive keys and five negative ones runs a serious risk of winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college. In these specific cases, campaign factors may actually matter. 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 one exception to this rule is the election of 1876, where the replacement of Independent Supreme Court justice David Davis with a Republican on the Electoral Commission of 1877 (thus giving the GOP a majority on that board) and a political deal (the Compromise of 1877) put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in return for ending Reconstruction. This happened in spite of the fact that the Republican Party had 9 negative keys that year, that Hayes lost the popular vote by a substantial margin, and that at least three states had conflicting sets of election returns - any one of which could have thrown the electoral college to Samuel Tilden, who was declared to have lost the electoral college by a single vote by the majority-Republican Electoral Commission.

The 13 Keys to the White House[edit]

The Keys are statements that favor victory (in the popular vote count) for the incumbent party. When five or fewer statements are false, the incumbent party is predicted to win the popular vote; when six or more are false, the challenging party is predicted to win the popular vote.[7]

  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.
  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.

The above 13 keys are slightly different from the 12 keys originally proposed in 1981.[2]


  1. ^ a b "What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections". VPR News. 9 November 2012.
  2. ^ a b Keilis-Borok, V. I. & Lichtman, A. J. (1981). "Pattern Recognition Applied to Presidential Elections in the United States, 1860–1980: The Role of Integral Social, Economic, and Political Traits". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 78 (11): 7230–34. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.11.7230. PMC 349231.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ Silver, Nate (31 August 2011). "Despite Keys, Obama Is No Lock". FiveThirtyEight Blog.
  4. ^ Lichtman, Allan J. (October 2000). "Election 2000: The Keys Point to Gore". Social Education. Retrieved May 14, 2019 – via Valley View High School, Hidalgo, TX.
  5. ^ a b Stevenson, Peter W. (2016-09-23). "Trump is headed for a win, says professor who has predicted 30 years of presidential outcomes correctly". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  6. ^ Stevenson, Peter W. (2016-11-09). "Professor who predicted 30 years of presidential elections correctly called a Trump win in September". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  7. ^ "Professor's 13 Keys Predict Obama Will Get Re-Elected". AOL News. Archived from the original on November 26, 2011. Retrieved March 26, 2012. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)

Works cited[edit]

  • Armstrong, J. S. & Cuzan, A. G. (Feb. 2006). "Index Methods for Forecasting: An Application to the American Presidential Elections". Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting, Issue 3, 10–13.
  • Jones, R. J. (2002). Who Will be in the White House?: Predicting Presidential Elections. (New York: Longman).
  • Lichtman, A. J. (2008). The Keys to the White House, 2008 Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Lichtman, A. J. (April–June, 2008). "The Keys to the White House: An index Forecast for 2008". International Journal of Forecasting. 24, 301–09.