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

Updated on June 2, 2020
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Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion

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Predicting 2020

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Predicting the Presidential Election (Updated May 2020)

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 (May 2020)

Key
Truth of Statement
Certainty
1: Party Mandate
False
Absolute
2: Contested Nomination
True
Almost Certain
3: Incumbency
True
Almost Certain
4: Third Party Challenge
True
Almost Certain
5: Short-term Economic Growth
-
Unknown
6: Long-term Economic Growth
-
Unknown
7: National Policy Achievement
False
Very Likely
8: Social Unrest
True
Uncertain
9: Scandal
False
Absolute
10: Foreign Policy Defeat
True
Very Likely
11: Foreign Policy Success
False
Likely
12: Incumbent Charisma
False
Very Likely
13: Challenger Charisma
True
Very likely
Total
Likely Republican: 6 Likely Democratic: 5
The election is very uncertain but favors Democrats
Republicans win if 8 keys are True and Democrats win if 6 keys are False

Party Approval

Source

The State of the Party (Keys 1-4)

The First four keys reflect on the viability of the incumbent party in national politics. How popular is the party? Is there a challenge to presidential leadership? Will the incumbent run for reelection?

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. Trump faces no major challenge to his nomination.

  • True (Trump is receiving record breaking support in the primaries and faces no serious challenge).

Key #3: Incumbency

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

  • True (Trump survived the Senate's impeachment and by all indications is running for reelection. It is very difficult to imagine he will not run).

Key #4: 3rd Party Challenge

There is no significant third-party or independent challenge. A third party candidate will not secure 5% of the electorate.

  • Very Likely True (1992 was the last time a significant third party had an impact on an election. A "never Biden" movement does exist, at least on Twitter, but it is not organized around any third party. No equivalent exists on the political right).

Source

The Economy (Keys 5 & 6)

It's the economy, stupid!

Key #5: Short-term Economic Performance

The economy is not in recession during the campaigning season. The economy is not faltering during the election campaign.

  • Totally Unknown (Forecasts did not predict recession, though the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus is turning much of the economic and political world upside down. Approximately 90% of the gains made in the Trump economy have been lost and it is unclear what the lasting effects of the disease will be on the economy. Even current forecasts are varied).

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. The economy improved under Trump's first term relative to Obama's two.

  • Totally Unknown (The economy did well under Trump, outpacing the Great Recession of Obama's first term but not as strong as Obama's second term. The COVID-19 virus is totally upending that trend however. Trillions of dollars in stimulus spending has been approved. Long-term consequences are now unknown with some saying the economy is already in recession and others claiming that the initial panic was unwarranted. Trump is attempting to reopen the economy, which may or may not happen and may or may not make the consequences worse).

Women's March
Women's March

National Policy (Keys 7-9)


The middle keys speak to the efficacy and ethics of the presidential administration. How has it wielded its power and how have Americans responded to it?

Key #7: Major Domestic Policy Achievement/Shift

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

  • False (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. Social unrest is not manifesting itself regularly in defiance of the president.

  • True (Trump has seen some of the most sustained yet partisan social protests 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.
  • The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has led to both protests and riots around the country in towns and cities large and modest alike. Several state National Guards have been mobilized and the president has threatened to shoot looters. More on this below).

Key #9: Administration Scandal

The administration is untainted by major scandals. 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. The combination of these two factors is enough to turn this key, even if one considered the impeachment to be partisan).

Foreign Policy (Keys 10 & 11)

How has the administration fared in international politics?

Key #10: No Major Foreign Policy Defeats

The incumbent party suffers no major defeats or humiliations in foreign affairs. The U.S. has not been defeated or humiliated.

  • True (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 merely subjective. There have been no major battlefield defeats or substantial lose of power).

Key #11: Major Foreign Policy Successes

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

  • False (Several major terrorist figures including the leaders of both ISIS and the Quds Force were killed, but this is not unique to Trump. Trump may be able to end the War in Afghanistan, which would be a major step toward turning this key but not enough on its own).

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. Trump inspires the nation as Reagan or Roosevelt once did.

  • False (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. A majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of COVID-19 and while opinions are split, that fact alone turns this key against Trump).

Key #13: Charisma of Challenger

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

  • True (Democrats have now united around Vice President Biden at least formally. Biden was not an especially charismatic figure even in his prime and is certainly not one now).

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 the election. 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.

March 2020 Update

Since January there have been a small number of hugely consequential changes to the election forecast. While nothing is decided yet, these changes on the whole further support the Democrats.

Firstly, Trump survived impeachment and will be the Republican nominee for president. This greatly helps Republicans in the general election.

Secondly, the Democratic primary contest is effectively down to two candidates with Tulsi Gabbard pulling less than 1% of votes in most primaries so far. With Vice President Biden in a commanding position it again becomes a question of when Senator Sanders ends his campaign. While it is not necessarily bad for Democrats to see a long and robust debate, it will be catastrophic to their cause if substantial numbers of Sanders supporters stay home or support President Trump. In 2016, some 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Trump, which is roughly in line with previous elections. However, an additional 13% went on to support other candidates or refuse to vote. A repeat of this outcome could lead to a narrow Trump victory as it did in 2016.

(The most important aspect of COVID-19 is damage to human life. Please be careful and help flatten the curve. Please also understand that this analysis only speaks to the election forecast and is not meant to be callus to those suffering.)

Far and away the most consequential new development in the election season is the COVID-19 virus. Not only has the administration's response been inadequate and widely criticized, but the USA has not even experienced the full weight of the pandemic yet. Avoidable fatalities and recession will not only turn one or both economic keys against Trump, but could also lead to massive social unrest. If the president's handling of the crisis to date is indicative of the future, the crucial swing keys could decidedly turn against Trump.

April 2020 Update - It's all about the economy as of now

This is a very short update as there are only two changes and one key affected.

First, Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee. This does not affect the Democrats chance of winning in any positive way but it's likewise not a negative. It would have been very unlikely that Sanders could have turned the charisma key for Democrats.

Second, the Coronavirus is now here and the economy is in recession. The vast majority of Americans are in quarantine and more than 12 million unemployment claims have been filed in the past two weeks. I already considered the short-term economy key to be unknown but now the long-term economy is in question as well. Economic success is not merely a function of dollars and cents. Some people are poorer than they think and others better off than they admit. The affects of the pandemic are cutting through those delusions and if the moderately-bad economic predictions are true, (much less the catastrophic) then the economy will have lost more in the long run under Trump than Obama.

If both economic keys turn for the Democrats, it is extremely difficult to see a path forward for Trump. If they split, I see the Democrats eking out a close victory. If the stimulus is massively successful than Trump will likely be impossible to defeat.

May 2020 - George Floyd and national protests

The major topic of this update is Key 8: Social Unrest. However there have been a few developments with implications for other keys that we can cover quickly first.

  • Keys 2 and 4: Representative Justin Amash nixed his presidential run in mid-May only a few weeks after launch. Amash was the third major challenger to end his campaign, following former representative Joe Walsh and governor Bill Weld. All three have stated that they will not run a third party campaign.
  • Keys 5 and 6: In early May the Department of Labor stated that the national unemployment rate was 14.7%, up more than 10% since March with some 40% of low-wage workers currently unemployed. Some 40 million Americans are now utilizing government assistance and approximately 20% of American households are classified as "food insecure." These figures are only rivaled by the Great Depression.
  • In terms of real growth, the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that "after the reopenings, the economy will still be a shadow of its pre-COVID-19 self. By Labor Day, real GDP will have recovered only half of what it lost during the recession." There also remains a very real risk of a second recession when the totality of the stimulus funds Congress authorized last month are used up and the social safety net becomes entirely overwhelmed. It is looking like a 10% unemployment rate, ordinarily the threshold of a crisis, will become the resting point, at least until a vaccine for COVID is found.

Key 8: Social Unrest

"To reach the threshold for turning Key 8, unrest must manifest itself in violent challenges to authority that either are sustained or raise concerns that remain unresolved at the time of the election campaign. Isolated incidents, such as the Miami race riot of 1980 or the 1992 Los Angeles rioting that followed the Rodney King trial, do not topple the social-unrest Key." - Lichtman

Do the protests and riots currently taking place throughout the United States in the wake of the state murder of George Floyd constitute a "violent challenge to authority" and will they be sustained or unresolved at the time of the election? Right now, it is very easy to say "yes" and "yes," but for the moment I'm not yet ready to turn this key against Trump. A bit of historical context is necessary to explain such a tentative stance.

Consider that since the end of the Progressive Era, the social unrest Key has turned against the incumbent only 3 times:

  1. 1920 - Spanish Flu and Red Summer
  2. 1932 - The Great Depression
  3. 1968 - Vietnam Protests

In this same time span social unrest, even when abnormally high, did not turn against the incumbent despite any of the following (list is not exclusive):

  1. 1972 - Murder of student protesters at Kent State
  2. 2004 - Iraq War Protests
  3. 2008 - Financial Crisis
  4. 2012 - Occupy Wall Street
  5. Critically, none of the protests/riots around race or policy brutality (1980, 1992, 2016) have ever turned this key, with the exception of the 1920 election cycle when the riots were carried out by whites against black and immigrant peoples. Protests in Ferguson or Baltimore or Los Angeles for instance have not yet proven significant enough to lead Americans to believe the country is coming undone.

There are compelling reasons to consider turning this key false, the comparison to 1920 for example is an attractive one. Currently a pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans and eroded confidence in our institutions. Just as the country was beginning to reopen riots have broken out across the nation, with race at the center. That being said, the Red Summer, which is a bit of a misnomer as it ranged from winter to fall 1919, resulted in over a thousand fatalities and the near total destruction of several black communities, most notably in Tulsa, OK. We do not yet know if several days of violence will continue into the coming months and it is very unlikely that any comparable amount of destruction will ensue.

The better reason to consider turning this key relies on the phrase "unresolved at the time of the election campaign." If President Trump is able to rally the people together and present at least the image of a unifying/healing nation then these protests will be remembered as many others are: moments of anger and outrage outside the norm. I find it highly unlikely that the president will be able to achieve this, but as questions of race and policing are always unresolved, it is not entirely clear that a vague sense of anger during the election will itself be enough for the Democrats to benefit from this key.

Like COVID did with the economy, these new protests have put the social unrest key on the map in a way i would not have predicted even a few days earlier. More time is needed, however, to determine where this key lands.

*As a final note, this analysis is not focused on the human cost of violence, not because this is not important but because my focus is on how the keys will turn. I wish safety for all my countrymen.*


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.

Questions & Answers

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    • profile image

      Facts before Fiction 

      2 months ago

      The author of this seems to be very partisan. He/She/It is probably among the crowd who claim that Obama did not have any scandals. I am picking only 1 point now, since others like "candidate's charisma" are blatantly obvious:

      Key 10, Foreign policy and America's influence in the world.

      Trump has massively boosted America's standing and influence. Today he has a more favourable polling in many nations than their own leaders (eg France) or people who are somewhat like him have been voted into office (Brazil, UK). His policies are making NATO stronger and are curbing the influence of Russia, China et.al in strong contrast to the many failures of Obama.

      He defused crises without killing large numbers of US soldiers and is in that regard the best president at least since Reagan or even since Monroe (yes, POTUS No 5 James Monroe of the Monroe Doctrine!!!)

    • Scottmonster profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Vehstedt 

      2 months ago from Washington, D.C.

      guerito777 There was a mistake in my table from when I updated in March. The social unrest key should turn for Trump. In the text I note that the social unrest is largely partisan and not impactful in the day-to-day sense.

      As to the scandal key: Only a handful of presidents have ever been impeached and all of those efforts were partisan in nature, which does not diminish the extremity of the situation. Whether one views Trump as a Nixon (personally criminal) or a Harding (surrounded by corruption), the combination of criminality around Trump and impeachment is enough to turn this key.

      Furthermore, in any given poll roughly half the country +/-5 points favored impeachment. That does not lend itself to being broadly viewed as a "coup" outside of Trump's base of support.

      The current tally then, by my take is:

      R7

      D5

      1 unknown

      Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      guerito777 

      2 months ago

      Social unrest: it was largely manufactured by the left and not truly grassroots, so I doubt this one goes to the dems.

      Scandal: really a nothing burger, again, mostly manufactured by the left

      The purpose of these keys is how the hearts of the people are towards the parties/candidates. Social unrest is only key when it is the heart of the PEOPLE, not manufactured or a childlike tantrum thrown by sore losers. The so called scandals were/are seen as a coup attempt, not true scandals. Again, the purpose of the key is to reflect the heart of the people.

      Trump 8

      Biden 4

      Unknown 1

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