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 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 geophysicist Vladimir Keilis-Borok. Allan Lichtman has used this system to correctly predict the outcomes of all the American presidential elections from 1984 to 2020, with the exception of 2000.

The 13 Keys[edit]

The Keys to the White House is a checklist of thirteen true/false statements that pertain to the circumstances surrounding a US presidential election. When five or fewer of the following statements about an upcoming election are false, the incumbent party candidate is predicted to win the election. When six or more are false, the incumbent party candidate is predicted to lose the election:

  1. Midterm gains: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
  2. No primary contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
  3. Incumbent seeking re-election: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
  4. No third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
  5. Strong short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
  6. Strong long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
  7. Major policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
  8. No social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
  9. No scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
  10. No foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
  11. Major foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
  12. Charismatic incumbent: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
  13. Uncharismatic challenger: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

By "incumbent party", Lichtman means the party to which the incumbent President belongs. In the 2016 election, the Democratic Party was the incumbent party as then-President Barack Obama was a Democrat. Obama was in his final term and thus could not run for re-election, so Hillary Clinton ran as the candidate for the Democratic Party, i.e. she was the incumbent party candidate. Donald Trump was the candidate for the Republican Party, i.e. he was the challenging party candidate.

Some of these keys can be judged using objective metrics, such as economic growth, and some of these keys are of rather subjective nature, such as candidate charisma. In the latter case, a forecaster must evaluate the circumstances of all past elections together so that his judgments are at least consistent if not objective, and then observe how his judgments retroactively predict historical election outcomes so that he can hone his subjective standards into something reliably predictive for future elections.[3]

Key 2 is true when the incumbent party nominee wins at least two-thirds of the total delegate vote on the first ballot at the nominating convention. Of all the Keys, this Key is the single best predictor of an election outcome. Conversely, the same does not hold true for the challenging party; if anything, strong competition for the challenger nominee's title seems to help the challenging party a little.[4]

With respect to Key 4, a "third party" is a political party other than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. All American presidential elections since 1860 (Lichtman's entire data set) have effectively been binary contests between the Democratic and Republican parties. No third party has come close to winning. That said, if a third party is unusually popular, it signals major discontent with the performance of the incumbent party, and therefore counts against the incumbent's re-election odds. Key 4 is turned false when a third party is likely to win 5% or more of the popular vote.[5]

Key 9, pertaining to scandal, is only turned false when there is bipartisan recognition of serious impropriety. The voting public ignores allegations of wrongdoing that appear to be the product of partisan politicking. The Watergate scandal began during Richard Nixon's first term but did not foil his re-election bid in 1972 because at the time the voting public thought the fuss was just a partisan ploy by the Democrats (Nixon was a Republican). After Nixon's re-election, new facts about the incident emerged that raised bipartisan concerns, and then the Watergate affair turned into a full-blown scandal that contributed to the Republicans' loss to the Democrats in the 1976 election (Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter).[6]

A charismatic candidate, as it pertains to Keys 12 and 13, is a candidate with an extraordinarily persuasive or dynamic personality that gives him very broad appeal. Lichtman considers James G. Blaine, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama to have been charismatic candidates. Having studied the political careers of all historical presidential candidates, Lichtman found that these seven men had charisma that was exceptional enough to make a measurable difference in their political fortunes. He likewise considers Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower to have been national heroes.[7]

Lichtman's prediction record[edit]

Using his 13 Keys, Lichtman has successfully predicted the winner of every American presidential election since 1984 with the exception of the election of 2000.

In 2000, Lichtman predicted that Al Gore would win the popular vote and therefore become President.[8] As it turned out, Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College and therefore did not become President. Usually, but not necessarily, the winner of the popular vote also wins the vote of the Electoral College, the voting body which actually selects the next President. Prior to 2000, the last time that a candidate had won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College was in 1888. In his defence, Lichtman argues that Gore was the rightful winner of the 2000 election, and lost because of improper ballot counting in Florida.[9][10] Lichtman further argues that his track record is nonetheless perfect because with regards to the 2000 election, he specifically predicted the outcome of the popular vote.

The 2016 election also presented a minor anomaly: while Lichtman correctly predicted that Donald Trump would become President, Trump lost the popular vote. With regards to this election, Lichtman did not predict the popular vote winner, but simply the winner of the election.

Predictions of US election outcomes by Allan Lichtman
1984[11] 1988[11] 1992[11] 1996[11] 2000[11] 2004[11] 2008[11] 2012[12] 2016[13] 2020[14][15]
Incumbent (party) Ronald Reagan George H. W. Bush George H. W. Bush Bill Clinton Al Gore George W. Bush John McCain Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Donald Trump
Challenger (party) Walter Mondale Michael Dukakis Bill Clinton Bob Dole George W. Bush John Kerry Barack Obama Mitt Romney Donald Trump Joe Biden
Midterm gains T T F F T T F F F F
No primary contest T T T T T T T T T T
Incumbent seeking re-election T F T T F T F T F T
No third party T T F F T T T T F T
Strong short-term economy T T F T T T F T T F[a]
Strong long-term economy F T F T T F F F T F
Major policy change T[b] F F F F F F T[c] F T
No social unrest T T T T T T T T T F[d]
No scandal T T T T F[e] T T T T F[f]
No foreign/military failure T T T T T F[g] F[h] T T T
Major foreign/military success F T[i] T[j] F F T[k] F T[l] F F
Charismatic incumbent T F F F F F F F[m] F F
Uncharismatic challenger T T T T T T F T T T
False keys 2 3 6 5 5 4 9 3 6 7
Predicted winner Ronald Reagan George H. W. Bush Bill Clinton Bill Clinton Al Gore George W. Bush Barack Obama Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden
Actual winner Ronald Reagan George H. W. Bush Bill Clinton Bill Clinton George W. Bush George W. Bush Barack Obama Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden


While visiting Caltech in 1981, Allan Lichtman met Vladimir Keilis-Borok, a leading Russian geophysicist, who asked Lichtman for help in applying his techniques for earthquake prediction to US presidential elections. Keilis-Borok developed a pattern-recognition algorithm which they applied to data collated from every presidential election from 1860 to 1980 to isolate variables that correlated with the likelihood of an incumbent President achieving re-election. They published their prediction model in 1981. The model at this stage had just 12 keys.[16] They later expanded it to 13. In 1982 Lichtman made his prediction for the 1984 election.[17]

Theoretical implications[edit]

Lichtman concludes from the content of his 13 Keys that it is governance, not campaigning, that determines who will win a presidential election. If voters feel that the country has been governed well for the preceding four years, then they will re-elect the incumbent President (or elect the candidate from the incumbent's party). If the voters feel that the country has been poorly governed, they will transfer control of the Presidency to the challenger.

Lichtman says that candidates and sitting Presidents should not be afraid in proposing and implementing new policy ideas, because the Keys show that voters don't care about specific policies, only the broad results. Candidates should invest less money and effort in their election campaigns, since these actually have little effect on their prospects. Voters and candidates alike should ignore "the hucksters": analysts, poll watchers, media strategists, etc., whose careers revolve around the campaign and marketing.[18] As shown by Key 2, the incumbent party should avoid squabbles over the nominee and instead unite early and clearly behind a consensus nominee; conversely, it is not necessary for the challenging party to do this.


The model has been criticised by statisticians as including too many predictors to be a sound model, and for forecasting only the winner of elections — a binary outcome — rather than the vote share of the winning party,[19] which Lichtman acknowledges.



  1. ^ The COVID-19 Recession was ongoing at the time of the election
  2. ^ Reagan enacted major cuts in taxes and social spending.
  3. ^ The Affordable Care Act.
  4. ^ Numerous incidents of unrest, including the 2017 protests in Charlottesville and the 2020 nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd's death.
  5. ^ Bill Clinton was impeached.
  6. ^ Trump was impeached, among other scandals.
  7. ^ The 9/11 attacks and mounting US casualties in Iraq.
  8. ^ The unresolved military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  9. ^ Detente with the Soviet Union, and a bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty.
  10. ^ Victory in the Gulf War.
  11. ^ The defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
  12. ^ The killing of Osama bin Laden.
  13. ^ Obama failed to connect with the public the same way he had in 2008.
  1. ^ "What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections". VPR News. November 9, 2012.
  2. ^ 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. Bibcode:1981PNAS...78.7230L. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.11.7230. PMC 349231. PMID 16593125.
  3. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, chpt. 1
  4. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, p. 26
  5. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, p. 31
  6. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, p. 41
  7. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, p. 46
  8. ^ Lichtman (2000): "Thus, on balance, barring a most improbable turn of events, the American people will ratify the record of the current Democratic administration this year and elect Al Gore president of the United States."
  9. ^ Joseph Jaffe, Allan Lichtman (November 18, 2020). The Keys to the White House - Distinguished Professor, Allan Lichtman (YouTube streaming video). Event occurs at 32m03s.
  10. ^ Allan J. Lichtman (2001). "Supplemental Report on the Racial Impact of the Rejection of Ballots Cast in Florida’s 2000 Presidential Election and in Response to the Statement of the Dissenting Commissioners and Report by Dr. John Lott Submitted to the United States Senate Committee on Rules in July 2001" in Voting Irregularities in Florida during the 2000 Presidential Election (US Commission of Civil Rights, 2001)
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President
  12. ^ Lichtman (2012)
  13. ^ Peter W. Stevenson (September 23, 2016). "Trump is headed for a win, says professor who has predicted 30 years of presidential outcomes correctly". Washington Post.
  14. ^ He Predicted a Trump Win in 2016. What's His Forecast For 2020? (streaming video). New York Times. August 5, 2020.
  15. ^ "Keys to the White House – PollyVote".
  16. ^ A. J. Lichtman; V. I. Keilis-Borok (November 1981). "Pattern recognition applied to presidential elections in the United States, 1860-1980: Role of integral social, economic, and political traits" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 78 (11): 7230–7234. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.11.7230.
  17. ^ Allan J. Lichtman (April 1982). "How to Bet in '84". Washingtonian.
  18. ^ Lichtman (2020), Predicting the Next President, chpt. 13
  19. ^ Silver, Nate (August 31, 2011). "Despite Keys, Obama Is No Lock". FiveThirtyEight. Archived from the original on October 7, 2020.