Alan Lichtman, the “professor who’s been right about every election since 1984,” uses a really odd, but ‘apparently’ accurate means to predict election outcomes. This consists of gauging the response to thirteen keys or questions about the election race and the state of the nation. The defending candidate -Trump in 2020, must score “seven answers true” to be the predicted winner. The challenger candidate on the other hand -Biden in 2020, must score “six answers false” to be the predicted winner. When the 2020 prediction was released last week, Professor Lichtman announced Biden would win the election because there were more than six questions answered FALSE compared to only six answered TRUE for Trump. The outcome was fawned over in the New York Times, CBS, CNBC, etc. So, let us assume, just for fun, that this model can predict outcomes, and check Professor Lichtman’s work.
The 13 Questions
The premise of the model relies on these questions, or keys as Lichtman calls them: answers for the 2020 prediction model are in bold.
1. Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections. FALSE.
2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. TRUE.
3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president. TRUE.
4. Third-party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign. TRUE.
5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. FALSE.
1. Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. FALSE.
2. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. TRUE.
3. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term. FALSE.
4. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. FALSE. (This was lost on Impeachment, Stormy Daniels and Mueller)
5. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. TRUE.
1. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. FALSE.
2. Incumbent (party) charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. FALSE.
3. Challenger (party) charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. TRUE.
A video, available here, explains the reasoning behind these answers, three don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The Economic Score
First, earlier in the year, the two economic questions 5 and 6, were true, but Lichtman has moved them into the false category due to the economic consequences of Covid-19. Is this fair? Would it not be more prudent to allow for the voter’s making a decision to consider the whole four years of economic performance? If that were to be done, then there are persuasive statistics making the case for strong economic performance. For example, U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) under President Trump, topped 3% in 4 quarters under his administration. Before Covid-19, his administration’s pro-growth policies generated 6 million new jobs. Hispanic, Asian, and African American and female unemployment rates all reached record lows under President Trump.
Indeed, President Trump says, the strong foundation set prior to the virus means the country will recover much faster than anticipated. To support this, he cites figures showing retail spending approaching a high, auto production surging 28% and used car sales are setting a record, which is also good because when the used cars are practically not available you end up making a lot of new cars.
Small business optimism is also coming back. In June, it was higher than any month under the previous administration even while the US is going through a worldwide pandemic. President Trump stated, “through the historic relief package, I signed into law, we saved over 50 million American jobs — and the unemployment rate is rapidly going down. And I think you’ll see over the next two months, you’ll have a good report even prior to the election.”
By selecting the month of August to finalize his measure economic performance, Professor Lichtman is arguably not giving fair consideration to what may occur in the next month or two, or indeed, what occurred at earlier points in the administration. Maybe the answer would be different 6 weeks or so before the election, or maybe the direction economic momentum is moving towards is also important for voters i.e… Is it trending up or down? Which candidate would that then favor?
Economic performance is also not uniform across the states, so there is a strong likelihood that voters will be impacted by the prevailing trends in their state. For example, the pandemic has had a hugely negative effect in Nevada, Casinos are shut down, vendors are not able to reschedule conferences any earlier than 2021. Hotels and businesses rely on these events and without them are stagnant. No visitors mean no footfall across myriad industries, restaurants, entertainments, retail, airlines, and taxis.
By comparison, South Dakota, which never shut down when Covid-19 hit, reports that their economy is on the mend and 80% of their residents have got their jobs back. By considering the economy as a whole, when unprecedented disparities exist, is very presumptive of Professor Lichtman.
Besides, in his 2016 election prediction model, he scored Barack Obama/Democrats true on the economic questions, when their GDP reached a level that comes in below the Trump level at all times except during the pandemic.
No major foreign policy successes?
The second controversial answer is on question 9: “the incumbent has had a major foreign policy success – true or false?” Here Professor Lichtman chose false, and I disagree with him. By any objective measurement, and by far, the main foreign policy issues President Trump had to deal with when he took office in January 2017 was ISIS and the constant belligerent nuclear testing by North Korea. Surprisingly, many people seem to have forgotten that Trump got rid of the rising ISIS caliphate, resoundingly, and in comparatively short order.
This can only be viewed as a foreign policy success. In fact, Lichtman’s own reasoning scored Barack Obama/Democrats as having no major foreign policy success in their favor for the 2016 model, with the disclaimer that “The foreign policy key could change, for example, if President Obama were to announce that ISIS is out of Iraq.” Trump not only accomplished the complete physical destruction of the Islamic State caliphate, he successfully hunted down its terrorist chieftain, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In other elements of his foreign policy, Trump took the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, which was built on a policy of appeasement and hostility to Israel. By moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and blessing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, his peace plan then made way for a deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations. President Trump played the role of honest broker and called the deal “a truly historic moment.” In fact, it marks only the third Israel-Arab peace deal since Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
“Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow The United Arab Emirates,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, saying there would be a signing ceremony at the White House in the coming weeks.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew on Twitter: “A Historic day,” and said full diplomatic relations will be established; the exchange of embassies; and normal trade ties between Israel and the UAE. Israel will now co-operate with the UAE in developing a coronavirus vaccine, in energy, water, environmental protection, and many other fields.
Trump also ordered Iran’s master terrorist, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, killed. His administration put maximum pressure on North Korea to denuclearize, including getting the United Nations Security Council to unanimously passed new sanctions on North Korea for their aggressive behaviors. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un then met on June 12, 2018, in Singapore where they discussed steps towards denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Although a lot remains to be done here, taking these steps, and curtailing provocative nuclear tests seems a major success in international relations.
The remaining point of contention with the Lichtman model, is question 12, on whether the incumbent candidate has charisma or is a national hero. According to the dictionary, charisma is exercising or demanding attention through a compelling charm that inspires devotion in others. President Trump has charisma, but for Professor Lichtman, it only appeals to a small segment of the population, so, he deemed that key false. Charisma, to some extent, belongs in the eye of the beholder, so at minimum, it would be fairer to make this one an even split between true and false.
It is also noteworthy that Lichtman is always lauded as having “successfully predicted election outcomes since 1984,” which is not entirely true. In 2000 he got it wrong when he predicted that Al Gore would be the next President but then defended himself after G.W. Bush’s victory by claiming that his system predicted the popular vote winner and that Al Gore did in fact win the popular vote. But that doesn’t correlate with his 2016 prediction that Trump would win the popular vote, so while he got the overall 2016 prediction correct, he was wrong on the popular vote winner. He has recently claimed that it is too difficult to be accurate on both the popular vote and electoral college vote winner, as they are not always in line. Thus, the 2020 prediction only claims to predict the electoral college vote.
It will be interesting to see if Lichtman makes any revisions after the third economic quarter this year, or in light of historic peace agreements in the Middle East. From my point of view, his reasoning for a few of these questions does not hold up, even when we judge it by his own previously stated standards.
Carol King received a first-class BA (honors) in History and Politics from Stirling University, along with an exceptional commendation for a study on US public opinion and Foreign Policy. She also completed a year of study at the University of London before taking up a Graduate Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University. She further completed an MPhil in American Politics at Dundee University. Aspiring to be a writer/commentator on American politics, she now writes for UncoverDC.