Lack of 'keys' might shut McCain out

An American professor has correctly predicted the outcome of every US presidential race since 1984, based on 13 factors affecting the incumbant party's chances of retaining the White House. James Zogby, correspondent, applies the system to this election

Republican presidential candidate John McCain waves to supporters at a rally in Davenport, Iowa.
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Back in 1981, Alan Lichtman, a professor at American University in Washington, discovered a sure-fire method of predicting the outcome of US presidential elections. Instead of relying on polling data, which only presents a snapshot of public opinion at a moment in time, Prof Lichtman developed a method of prognostication based on analysis of macro-level trends that define the political landscape.

He identified the indicators and called them "the 13 keys to the White House". Prof Lichtman based his 1981 paper on an analysis of every US presidential election since 1860, and since 1984 he has used his 13 keys to predict correctly every contest, getting even the closest votes right. According to Prof Lichtman, to win the White House the incumbent party must hold at least eight of the 13 keys. Less than eight means that the political setting is so hostile to the incumbent party that the victory is impossible.

What follows are the 13 keys and an assessment as to whether the Republicans can claim the requisite eight they will need to win. (A "yes" means that they get that particular key, a "no" means they do not.) 1. Incumbent-party mandate "In the last congressional election, the incumbent party increased its seats in the US House of Representatives." No. Democrats won more seats in the 2006 midterm elections, and now hold more seats in Congress than they did after the previous midterm contest in 2002.

2. Nomination contest "There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination." Yes. Although John McCain faced tough opposition early on, he won handily and unified his party by its convention. 3. Incumbency "The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president." No. Mr McCain is not George W Bush, despite the efforts of Democrats to tie his policies to the current administration. 4. Third party

"There is no significant third-party challenge." Yes. This election has no candidate like Ross Perot who is capable of winning a significant percentage of the overall vote. The two main independent candidates in 2008 - Ralph Nader and Bob Barr - will probably get a combined total of about five per cent of the vote and draw equally from both Mr McCain and Barack Obama, or win support from those who otherwise would not have voted.

5. Short-term economy "The economy is not in recession." Yes? There has been a meltdown on Wall Street. Economists define a recession, however, as two consecutive quarters of falling gross national product, and this is not yet the case. Certainly the mood of the US body politic has soured. 6. Long-term economy "Real annual per-capita growth is improving." No. Real per-capita economic growth is not improving.

7. Policy change "The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy." No. In its last term, the Bush administration has not effected any major changes in national policy. 8. Social unrest "There is no sustained social unrest." Yes. There is real public concern: only 11 per cent believe the country is on the "right track" and Mr Bush's approval rating languishes at 22 per cent, but there is no "sustained unrest" - as there was, for example, in the 1960s. 9. Scandal "The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal." Yes. There are problems, but there has been no Watergate-level investigation, Iran-Contra hearings or impeachment proceedings. 10. Foreign or military failure "The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs." Toss-up. The Bush administration is still struggling in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and has failed at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking - but it has not suffered a Vietnam-style defeat, either. 11. Foreign or military success "The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs." No. There have been no victory parades. 12. Incumbent charisma "The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero." Yes? By "hero", Prof Lichtman means a national wartime leader who led the country to victory - such as Dwight D Eisenhower or Ulysses S Grant. Mr McCain is not that, but his personal story, as a prisoner of war, is compelling for many Americans. 13. Challenger charisma "The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero." No? To the same degree that Mr McCain's story works for his supporters, Mr Obama's charisma is a powerful draw for his. This may account for Mr McCain's last-ditch effort to tarnish Mr Obama's image and character. But in the end, while neither of these two candidates fit Prof Lichtman's exact definitions of "hero," neither are they Mr Bush, Al Gore or John Kerry (the challengers in 2000 and 2004, respectively) - and so it is a draw. It appears clear, from this application of Prof Lichtman's analysis, that even in the best-case scenario for Mr McCain the Republican candidate would still win only seven of the keys and, therefore, not enough to keep the White House in Republican hands.