Obama a Sure Thing?

In Thirteen Keys to the Presidency historian Allan Lichtman teamed up with Russian Vladimir Kailis Borok (a mathematic modeler) to lay out 13 keys to victory — if the incumbent or his party has at least 8 of 13, he is predicted to win the Presidency.   The model was first proposed in the 80s, predicting the re-election of President Reagan.    It predicted President Bush the Elder’s election even while many people favored Dukakis, and Lichtman fielded a phone call from Governor Clinton’s office in 1991 wanting to know if a Democrat really had a chance against Bush.   Bush was still flying high from Desert Storm, but Lichtman’s “keys” said he was vulnerable.

Even in 2000, as Gore won the popular vote and had 8 keys, the third party challenge of Ralph Nader, while not reaching the 5% level to flip the sixth key against Gore, was enough to flip Florida.   So the model can be said to have correctly predicted a close election with Gore winning the popular vote, but the one key close to flipping was enough to turn Florida against Gore.   As early as 2003 the keys showed Bush winning re-election, and in 2008 predicted McCain’s defeat.   When used retrospectively the “keys” are accurate all the way back to 1860.

While on its face this appears very robust — the model has never been wrong in 150 years, and has been right counter-intuitively early on (like in 1991), the “N” is not large.   There have been 38 elections since (and including) 1860.  Even a robust social science model resists 100% accuracy, and the idea that it’s infallible is laughable.   Still, it does appear smart money should be on Obama (especially if you can get a partisan Republican to give you odds):

Here are the keys (Yes means the key favors Obama, No means it does not):

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.

No – Obama loses this key.

2.  Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

Yes – Obama has no challenger at this time, and this late in the game it’s unlikely a serious contest could be mounted.

3.  Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

Yes –  Obama has the power of incumbency on his side.

4.  Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

Yes - It’s hard to imagine a serious third party challenge getting started this late.

5.  Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

No –  It’s possible that by next July the economy will be growing again, but for now it appears the recession will persist.

6.  Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

No – The economy has been in recession since Obama took office, though the fact he took office at the height of the recession may limit some of the impact (people still understand he didn’t cause it.)

7.  Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

Yes –  The health care reform act, repeal of DADT, and the activity of the first two years created some major policy changes.

8.  Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

Yes – There is no social unrest.   The tea party fizzled after the 2010 election and while people are upset about the economy we’re not seeing riots and anger.

9.  Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

Yes –  Baring an unexpected development the Obama administration has been remarkably scandal free.   There haven’t even been minor scandals; that is unlikely to change in the next year.

10.  Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

Yes – While some wanted to paint Libya as a failure when the rebels didn’t get a quick victory but that’s turned around.  Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down without disaster.  Some experts criticize aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, but there has been no major failure.

11.  Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

Yes –  Killing Osama Bin Laden, continuing the draw down in Iraq, having the rebels win in Libya…only the Bin Laden death is “major,” but overall Obama’s foreign policy has been generally successful.

12.  Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

Yes – He still is the first black President, he has far higher personal ratings than job approval, and his speeches are very well received.

13.   Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Tenative Yes -  No Republican really seems especially charismatic.   Romney is likable, but struggles with his personal reputation.   Perry might end up showing real charisma, but at this point he seems to have benefited mostly from being the “new guy” in a weak field.   Most likely, the GOP candidate will be “average” as far as candidates go.   But this is a key that could be turned around.

Add it up, recognizing that Obama needs 8 yes and no more than 5 no marks, and things look good for the President.   He has 10 yes and 3 no’s.  If the GOP does find a charismatic challenger that still leaves him with 9 yes and 4 no, predicting victory.

The Republicans also seem to be so focused on continuing the more partisan 2010 rhetoric that they might end up misjudging the electorate in 2012 and allow Obama to paint himself as the tested and safe alternative in difficult times.

However, as the 2000 race showed, the one hole in this theory is that it’s a macro theory concerning 50 micro contests.  Al Gore won the macro contest in 2000 — he bested George W. Bush in popular votes by a considerable amount; even the Kennedy-Nixon fight was closer.   Gore lost the election because the result of state votes determine the winner.    If one looks at the electoral map, there are many states one could imagine a Republican winning, especially if he or she ran a competent campaign, perhaps with charisma.

But even if Obama lost Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, he’d still have enough to win if he kept the others (he could even lose a couple small states like Nevada).   Losing Florida would force him to keep at least one of those, so one can imagine a shifting map.  Still to risk losing all those states one would have to see macro trends in play — trends the “keys” suggest won’t emerge.

One can imagine scenarios that alter the current landscape tremendously.   If job growth continues and quickens, and it turns out that the recession fears of the last few weeks were fits of panic, Obama could look very good by mid-2012.  If we do dip into recession again, then the keys may not be enough — no President since Roosevelt has governed in four years of economic recession.

Still, the Republicans are ready to rip each other in the primaries, Obama has no competition from rival democrats for fund raising, and the tested and successful Obama campaign machine is ready to rumble.    Things look far better for the President than one might think reading the headlines and the pundits.

Of course, a model that’s basically 38 for 38 is overdue to be wrong, and if any factor weighs high enough that it would make the “keys” irrelevant, that’s the economy.   Is Obama a sure thing?   No way.   Is he a ‘failed President’ destined to join Carter and Bush the Elder as “one termers” — perhaps, but it’s way to early to make that call!

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  1. #1 by reflectionephemeral on August 31, 2011 - 4:41 pm

    Thanks for this, this is a neat model. I’d seen a few more simplistic models– based on changes in unemployment, or how many people think we’re going the right way. This one has a lot more to it.

  2. #2 by Bryan Russell on August 31, 2011 - 8:06 pm

    Very well thought out Dr. Erb. It’ll be interesting to see if this theory holds true for 2012.

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