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 about the upcoming presidential election. 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.
This article was last updated in July 2020. This article was last updated in July 2020. See the sections at the bottom of the article for specific updates.
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 their intent to run for president.
Logic of the 13 Keys
The Keys are 13 questions stated as propositions favoring the 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
- Incumbent Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections.
- Nomination Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
- Incumbency: The sitting president is running for re-election.
- Third Party: There is no major third party or independent campaign.
- Short-Term Economy: The economy is not in recession during the campaign season
- Long-Term Economy: Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the two previous terms.
- Policy Change: The incumbent causes major changes in national politics.
- Social Unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the campaign
- Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandals.
- Foreign or Military Failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
- Foreign or Military Success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
- Incumbent Charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
- Challenger Charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
The 13 Keys for 2020 (July 2020)
|Key||Truth of Statement||Certainty||Turned|
1: Party Mandate
2: Contested Nomination
4: Third Party Challenge
5: Short-Term Economic Growth
6: Long-Term Economic Growth
7: National Policy Achievement
8: Social Unrest
10: Foreign Policy Defeat
11: Foreign Policy Success
12: Incumbent Charisma
13: Challenger Charisma
Likely Repub: 5 Likely Dem: 6
Currently favors Democrats
3 Keys turned for Republicans; 2 Keys turned for Democrats
The State of the Party (Keys 1–4)
The first four Keys reflect 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 re-election?
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 received record-breaking support in the primaries and faces no serious challenge).
Key #3: Incumbency
The sitting president is running for re-election. Trump is running for re-election.
- True (Trump survived the Senate's impeachment and by all indications is running for re-election. It is very difficult to imagine a circumstance where he does not run).
Key #4: Third Party Challenge
There is no significant third-party or independent challenge. A third-party candidate will not secure 5% of the electorate.
- True (There is no significant third party movement in the USA).
The Economy (Keys 5 and 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.
- Unknown (Forecasters say the USA entered recession in February 2020. Critically, this key is dependent on circumstances in the fall campaign, and in June the USA added 4.8 million new jobs, many of which were in sectors hardest hit by COVID. This key will likely not turn until September at the earliest).
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.
- Unknown (Long-term economic forecasting is even less certain than the short-term outlook).
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.
- False (Trump has seen some of the most sustained yet partisan social protests since the invasions of Iraq or Vietnam. The annual Women's March has been attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country and the initial march in 2017 was 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 and 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 loss 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 Candidates (Keys 12 and 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
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 re-election—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 have 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 effects 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:
- 1920: Spanish Flu and Red Summer
- 1932: The Great Depression
- 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 (the list is not exclusive):
- 1972: Murder of student protesters at Kent State
- 2004: Iraq War Protests
- 2008: Financial Crisis
- 2012: Occupy Wall Street
- Critically, none of the protests/riots around race or police 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 minority groups. 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 has 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 is a brief update and will be my last before my final prediction.
Key 8: Social Unrest: It is now safe, if not precise, to turn the Social Unrest key against the Republicans. The murder of George Floyd has led to some of the largest and most sustained protests in American history.
As the NYT reported on July 3, "The recent Black Lives Matter protests peaked on June 6, when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States. That was a single day in more than a month of protests that still continue to today."
With no end to the protests in sight, race and policing will be a major issue in the fall campaign for presidents and mayors alike.
This key will be discussed at greater length in my final update.
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
Question: Goldman Sachs now projects GDP will fall 6% for the year. If true will wipe out nearly all the gains the first three years of Trump. That would turn the two economy keys and make at least 6. Will you wait for hard statistics to predict the turning of the keys?
Answer: Yes. Of the 13 keys I see only a few as already turned. All of the rest are in states of uncertainty. I had not seen the Goldman Sachs prediction you cited. Predictions of this sort are never certain and the effects of the stimulus and a potential additional stimulus now debated in the House are not yet known. My own prediction will be updated as time goes on. Thank you for your question.
Question: Which keys to the Whitehouse have turned? Which are we waiting on turning? And so how many keys do Dems need to turn to win, and how many do Republicans need to turn to win?
Answer: In my estimation, 4 keys have "turned:" Trump is a 1) incumbent with 2) no serious challenger or 3) third party challenge, 4) representing a party that holds fewer seats in the Congress now than in the prior midterm. This turns 3 keys for the Republicans and leaves 1 for the Democrats. All of the other keys are in various states of uncertainty. In order to win the election Republicans must turn 8 Keys (5 more) and Democrats must hold 6 as the challenger (5 more). I will update this model as more keys turn or their certainty increases.
Question: Does the scandal key count? It is relatively difficult to assess. As Litchman stated Iran Contra did not count so does the "fake news" era mystique around the legitimacy of those incidents throughout the first 3 years of the presidency qualify the scandal key?
Answer: The scandal key has not been removed or replaced (so far as I know) so I'm still using it for my analysis. We didn't always have the term "fake news" but the sentiment has long been there and the scandal key still served its purpose. The deeper question you raise regarding the trustworthiness and confidence in institutions and the media is one I think about as well, though I still think there is a critical mass of people across the spectrum who don't throw the term "fake news" around for anything they don't like.
Question: Aren't the tax cuts and reduction of immigration (I suspect most Americans support lower immigration), major achievements for the 2020 election? I think your 'false' for this question reflects a left-wing bias.
Answer: I understand that intuition and it is one I try to account for but cannot erase. Here's my thinking on why I turn this false.
1) Trump is hardly the first president to reduce income taxes. President Bush slashed taxes across every income bracket after winning in 2000 and most of those cuts were later made permanent during the Obama years. Bush also strengthened Medicare and passed the Patriot Act and even then Lichtman did not turn the policy key for Republicans in 2004. Compared to Bush, Trump has done far less. His tax cuts are popular as tax cuts almost always are, yet a majority of Americans, rightly or wrongly, report not seeing a difference. On healthcare, Trump failed twice to overturn the ACA before succeeding only in part.
2) Deporting immigrants living in the United States illegally is again popular politics but it is not a major achievement. Each administration makes a show of being tough on immigration and the same reality is ever-present: when the economy is expanding so does immigration; when the economy is contracting, so does immigration. Many leftists have pointed out that Obama deported more people than Trump, which is technically true but not an achievement on the national scale. In 2016 the national policy key turned against the Democrats as President Obama failed to produce any major policy between 2012 and 2016.
In summation, President Trump has advanced some goals you'd expect a Republican to advance, but he's not been wildly successful or particularly ambitious in his efforts. Arguably his signature policy goal is a large border wall (fence) that has not to be completed and likely never will be.
Question: Are the current protests of the police killing of George Floyd considered partisan and/or not sustained enough to turn the social unrest key to false?
Answer: This is the subject of my next update. The short answer is that I think this key is teetering on turning for the Democrats (False) but I'm currently going to keep it True.
Question: Many Internet writers are comparing the current social unrest to that of 1968. 100,000+ have died, more than the Viet Nam War; more Americans are out of work since the Great Depression, and we have protests on the George Floyd killing in virtually every state. Doesn't the mixture of all of these social ills make it major social unrest in modern America?
Answer: I certainly see the comparison and I devoted the May update of the hub to the topic. The short answer is that I see the combination of many forces putting this key in play but not yet turned.
There were more than 300 riots in major and minor American cities between 1965 and 1968. We're not there yet. Yes, the financials are comparable to the Great Depression, but we have social security, unemployment insurance, FDIC insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, and a host of other reforms that Americans lacked previously.
My sense is that the Trump administration is in full control of this key; I expect they will continue to shrink to the task and the unrest will continue. Rioting will not last forever, it never does. But if the administration fails to resolve underlying issues or adequately heal the nation in the coming months when the campaigns kick into high gear then this key will turn.
Question: Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman, is seeking the Libertarian nomination. Does that impact President Trump? Since the incumbent party is also facing an independent in the general election.
Answer: Yes, potentially this would turn another key against President Trump making his reelection extremely doubtful. That said, the third-party key last turned nearly 30 years ago and I find it doubtful that rep. Amash will be able to garner enough support to do so in 2020. We will all have to keep an eye on him as we move into summer and fall as the nation's attention centers more squarely on electoral politics. The keys do not speak to this specific point, but my own intuition is that the nomination of Joe Biden actually helps Amash. Had Sanders won the nomination, I believe many Republicans who don't like Trump would be hesitant to "waste" their vote on Amash knowing it would help a socialist. Biden is more palatable.
© 2020 Scott Vehstedt