Summary of “The Keys to the White House: Forecast for 2008”

Professor Allan J. Lichtman (American University, Washington, D.C.) presents a model developed in 1981 for predicting the popular-vote winners of American presidential elections. The model worked accurately when applied retrospectively to every U. S. presidential election from 1860 to 1968, as well as when it was used to forecast presidential winners from 1984 through 2004. The author states that presidential campaigns should be based on issues and ideas important to the functioning of a democracy as set out in the U.S. Constitution. The majority of today’s political campaigns, however, focus on negative ads about opponents and on pointless debates with pre-written responses that ultimately do not affect an election’s outcome.

Lichtman’s model proposes that presidential election results are determined by how well the current administration has governed the country, not by how well candidates have performed during a campaign. To evaluate the “big picture” of an administration’s performance, the model assesses the following factors: “economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation.” If the U.S. does well during the incumbent party’s term, then that party will most likely win the presidential election. Acceptance by candidates and the media of this precedent as the determinant of the winner would open the door to a reformed style of campaigning based on important issues and ideas to be accomplished by the next administration.

The Keys Model

“The Keys” are a series of explicitly defined statements that favor the re-election of the incumbent party. If five or fewer statements “turn” false, the incumbent party wins. If six or more become false, the challenging party is the victor. The thirteen keys include factors related to party mandate, contest, incumbency, third party, short-term and long-term economy, policy change, social unrest, scandal, foreign/military failure and success, and incumbent and challenger charisma. The system can predict the presidential winner of the popular vote well ahead of time by tracking the indicators of the current administration’s strength and performance.

Lichtman’s model is historically based on a wide range of assessment factors, including, but not limited to, economic concerns. A well-known economic prediction model developed by Professor Ray Fair in 1976 (Yale University) did not correctly predict Carter’s 1976 election because it overlooked Watergate and Vietnam, and it was not conclusive in the 1980 election because it did not include the Iran hostage crisis or the incumbent’s weakened domestic agenda. It also failed in 1992 because of President George H. W. Bush’s lack of leadership and failure to effect policy change, as well as the entrance of Ross Perot into the race. The foregoing examples emphasize the importance of considering a variety of factors of concern to all manner of voters, as does Lichtman’s diagnostic model.

To reduce errors based on value judgments, each key is given a value of 0 or 1, rather than a weight. Using a binary system compensates, in part, for changing situations and priorities from one election to the next. Although only one or two keys may be turned against an incumbent administration in direct response to a major event such as the Great Depression, keys may have trigger effects on other keys. During the 1930s economic collapse, Republicans not only lost the two Economic Keys but also lost the Party Mandate Key and the Social Unrest Key.

The 2004 Forecast

In April, 2003, the Keys Model predicted the Republicans would win in 2004, based on their having only four keys turned against them. These keys included the weak economy, only modest domestic accomplishments, foreign/military failure, and the lack of an incumbent charisma/hero. All other keys were in favor of the Republicans keeping control of the presidential election.

Based on this prediction, Democratic nominee John Kerry could have instituted a new type of campaign to overcome the Keys’ factors instead of running a traditional one which would eventually fail. In July, 2004, Lichtman and his co-collaborator on the Keys model, mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok, suggested that Kerry should “lead a debate on critical neglected issues . . . break precedent and set up a shadow government” and “submit an alternative budget and drafts of international agreements and major legislation.” If Kerry had done so and still lost, he would have, at a minimum, established a precedent on how to run an innovative campaign and possibly set himself up for another presidential run in 2008.

Forecasting 2008

In past predictions, the Keys forecasted Reagan’s win in 1984 and Bush’s loss in 1992. According to results as of June, 2005, the Republicans are not in a good position, and the Democrats are probably going to win the 2008 election. Four keys have not yet been decided, and five keys are likely to fall against the incumbent Republicans. Based on the current model, the Republicans will lose in 2008 if the likely keys line up as expected and just one of four uncertain keys falls against it.

The following keys currently favor the incumbent Republican Party:

1) Key 4: The lack of any prospective third-party challenger.

2) Key 8: The absence of social unrest comparable to that of the 1960’s.

3) Key 9: The likelihood of a significant scandal in the current administration.

4) Key 13: No prospective Democratic challenger matching FDR’s or JFK’s charisma.

The following keys are likely to fall against the Republican Party:

1) Key 1: The Democrats need to win just three U. S. House seats in the 2006 midterm elections.

2) Key 2: The Republicans are likely to battle fiercely in choosing a nominee to replace George W. Bush.
3) Key 3: Bush’s inability to run again in 2008

4) Key 7: Bush is unlikely to achieve a policy revolution.

5) Key 12: Of all possible GOP candidates, only John McCain might secure the Incumbent Charisma/Hero Key.

The following keys are uncertain:

1) Keys 5 and 6: Both Short-Term and Long-Term Economy depend on unpredictable future trends in economic growth.

2) Keys 10 and 11: Both Foreign/Military Failure and Success will turn on unforeseeable events abroad and within the U. S.

Conclusion: Worldwide Implications

The Keys Model cannot be used to predict other political systems, but the system does have global lessons. Leaders in democratic societies should focus their campaigns and agendas on governing and on crucial issues, not on manipulating voters’ opinions through offensive and often bland campaigns. Those who do not heed this suggestion will probably fail in their roles as leaders and in future elections.


As of the first quarter of 2008, the majority of the previously-described “likely to fall” and “uncertain” keys, as well as one of the “currently favor” keys, have turned against the Republican presidential candidate. The fatal number of 6 negative keys has been reached. Additionally, the country is not faring well, and John McCain is running a “business-as-usual” campaign. Based on The Keys of Lichtman’s presidential prediction model, the popular vote will place the Democrat Party’s nominee in the White House.

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