2020 Election: How Will the "Keys to the White House" Turn?

Updated on January 21, 2020
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Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion


Predicting the Presidential Election

This article begins with an overview of the Keys system, followed by some of what we already know. I will eventually offer my own prediction. In 2016, I incorrectly predicted a very close election with Clinton winning. Professor Lichtman, who created the system, predicted Trump would win. This article will be periodically updated throughout the 2020 campaign.

The "Keys" System

In the early 1980s, professor Allan Lichtman developed, in collaboration with vulcanologist Vladimir Keilis-Borok, a system for predicting the American presidential election.

The system is so accurate that he has successfully predicted every election since 1984, sometimes without even knowing who the challenging candidate will be. The Keys have likewise retrospectively fit all previous elections since the modern party system began in 1860.

Spurning the usual approach to politics, Lichtman believes the American electorate to be smarter and more pragmatic than it is often given credit for. The people, in Lichtman's model, will reward the political party that serves it well and punish those that fail.

The candidates themselves, and their associated campaign funds, make surprisingly little difference, as many of the factors that lead people to the polls will have already been determined before all of the candidates even announce.

Logic of the 13 Keys

The Keys are 13 questions stated as propositions favoring re-election of the incumbent party.

  • When five or fewer are false the incumbent party wins another term in office.
  • When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

The keys balance the significant factors that the American public cares about, ranging from domestic to foreign achievements, from economic competence to trustworthiness. The individual candidates constitute only two of the thirteen keys, as detailed in the table below.

The 13 Keys for 2020 (January 2020)

Truth of Statement
1: Party Mandate
2: Contested Nomination
Very Likely
3: Incumbency
Very Likely
4: Third Party Challenge
Very Likely
5: Short-term Economic Growth
6: Long-term Economic Growth
7: National Policy Achievement
8: Social Unrest
9: Scandal
10: Foreign Policy Defeat
11: Foreign Policy Success
12: Incumbent Charisma
Very Likely
13: Challenger Charisma
Very likely
Likely Republican: 7 Likely Democrat: 6
The election is very uncertain
To win in 2020: Republicans must hold 8 keys. Democrats must turn at least 6 keys

Party Approval


The State of the Party (Keys 1-4)

Key #1: Incumbent Party Mandate

The incumbent party holds more seats in the House of Representatives after the midterm elections than it did after the previous midterm. Do Republicans hold more seats in the House after 2018 than they did after 2014?

  • False (They went from 247 seats to 199 seats).

Key #2: Nomination Contest

There is no major contest for the incumbent party nomination, which signals an heir apparent for continued party leadership. Will Trump see a major challenge to his nomination?

  • Likely. (It is highly unlikely any Republican will seriously challenge Trump).

Key #3: Incumbency

The sitting president is running for reelection. Is Trump running for reelection?

  • Likely (If the president survives the Senate's impeachment trial, this will turn for Republicans. It is possible he will not).

Key #4: 3rd Party Challenge

There is no significant third-party or independent challenge. Can a third party candidate secure 5% of the electorate?

  • Unlikely: (It is highly unlikely. 1992 was the last time a significant third party had an impact on an election. Some have speculated that Congresswoman Gabbard may run third party but she has denied this).


The Economy (Keys 5 & 6)

Key #5: Short-term Economic Performance

The economy is not in recession during the campaigning season. Will the economy falter during the election campaign?

  • Likely (Current forecasts do not predict recession).

Key #6: Long-term Economic Growth

Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. Has the economy improved under Trump's first term relative to Obama's two?

  • Likely (The economy has done well under Trump, outpacing the Great Recession of Obama's first term but not as strong as Obama's second).

Women's March
Women's March

National Policy (Keys 7-9)

Key #7: Major Domestic Policy Achievement/Shift

The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. Has Trump made his mark on domestic policy?

  • Unlikely (Trump rolled back the ACA and Title IX enforcement on college campuses, but did not eliminate prior policies altogether. He's also reformed the tax code and reduced immigration but that is not a major policy change).

Key #8: Major Social Unrest

There is no sustained social unrest during the term. Is social unrest manifesting itself regularly in defiance of the president?

  • Unlikely (Trump has seen some of the most sustained social protest since the invasions of Iraq or Vietnam. The annual Women's March alone is attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country and was in 2017 the largest single day protest in American history. At the same time, these protests have been largely partisan in nature and are not affecting day-to-day life).

Key #9: Administration Scandal

The administration is untainted by major scandals. Do voters see Trump as a straight-shooter?

  • False (More than a dozen Trump associates/staff have been arrested, indicted, jailed, or investigated for a variety of crimes. Trump is only the third president to be impeached of forty-four presidents and fifty-eight terms of office).

Foreign Policy (Keys 10 & 11)

Key #10: No Major Foreign Policy Defeats

The incumbent party suffers no major defeats or humiliations in foreign affairs. Has The U.S. been defeated or humiliated?

  • Likely (The U.S. is losing influence in the world, but this is not unique to Trump. The U.S. has not suffered battlefield defeats and whether it is humiliated by Trump is subjective).

Key #11: Major Foreign Policy Successes

The incumbent party achieves a major success in foreign politics. Has Trump improved America's global standing?

  • Unlikely (Several major terrorist figures including the leaders of both ISIS and the Quds Force were killed, but this is not unique to Trump).

The top contenders as of January 2020
The top contenders as of January 2020 | Source

The Candidates (Keys 12 & 13)

Key #12: Charisma of Incumbent Party Candidate

The incumbent party candidate is a national hero or exceptionally charismatic figure. Does Trump inspire the nation as Reagan or Roosevelt once did?

  • Unlikely (Trump maintains a very motivated base. But he is not a nationally loved figure with approval sitting well below Obama in each year of his presidency).

Key #13: Charisma of Challenger

The challenging party candidate is NOT a national hero or exceptionally charismatic figure. Do the Democrats have an inspiring candidate?

  • Likely (Democrats have not selected a nominee yet. Only Sanders or Warren have the potential to turn this key but neither is likely to. Sanders is a progressive hero but he's already lost a major nomination and Warren, like Clinton, could be the first female candidate but is not particularly charismatic).

January 2020 Analysis

If the election were held today, I predict the Democrats would win by a slim margin.

At present, however, there are too many unknown keys to feel confident about any outcome. An economic downturn in upcoming months could be disastrous for Trump's reelection—assuming he survives the impeachment trial in office.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly popular at the moment, but Democrats can at least cling to the "blue wave" of 2018 that led to a landslide victory in Congress. The president's current approval is sitting at 51 percent, a perfect indicator of polarization.

Though economic growth under Trump has not reached the highs achieved by Obama, it has not thus far sunk to the lows either.

Trump has done little to change national policy. He has cut taxes and restricted immigration but done little else to reverse Obama's policies or affect a Trump doctrine.

Candidate Trump's foreign policy promises were largely predicated on ending endless wars and reducing economic/military assistance to allies and dependents alike. Trump did reduce troop levels in Syria, opening the door to Turkish invasion, but has also increased troop commitments to Iraq as well as steering America closer to conflict with Iran.

Of course, the impeachment trial of the president could mean that Trump is removed from office before. This would effectively make Vice President Pence the new nominee, an outcome likely disastrous for Republicans.

Contrary to the Armageddon some liberals imagined under Trump, the nation and economy has held together and America's foreign policy is no less confused than it was before. Trump has been brash and brazen at times, the killing of Qassim Suleimani for instance, but if anything, the defining attribute of Trump's administration has been: little change.

As the campaigns develop over the coming months, we will have more data to update the model.

Predicting 2020

Who do you think will win in 2020?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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