American University’s distinguished professor of history, Alan Lichtman, shocked the world when he accurately predicted that Donald Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
During a Zoom interview with The National, Prof Lichtman held up a note he received from Mr Trump in 2016 shortly after that prediction came to fruition.
“Professor, congrats, good call,” it reads, in large letters written in marker with Mr Trump’s signature.
This time around, using his 13 trends or keys system to predict the White House winner, he correctly predicted a Joe Biden victory.
As yet, the professor who has accurately predicted the US presidential contest since 1982 – when he tipped Ronald Reagan to win in 1984 – has not received any congratulatory note from President Trump.
“No, and I don’t expect to,” Prof Lichtman said. “Although I’m still waiting to see if I get a nice note from Joe Biden.”
Mr Lichtman’s model looks at several factors in predicting a winner, including party mandate, third-party challenge, social unrest, incumbency and charisma.
“I predicted a Biden win in the beginning of August of this year based upon my prediction system that has been right ever since I predicted Ronald Reagan’s election in April of 1982,” he said. “It’s a non-partisan system.”
What surprised Lichtman?
On election night outside the White House, a very partisan crowd of demonstrators clearly expected Mr Biden to be declared the winner in a clear landslide, but they would have to wait for hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots to be counted across the country.
Look, I'm 73 years old and I've been doing these predictions for 40 years, and I get butterflies in my stomach every four years
Prof Alan Lichtman
Mr Lichtman said although this election was unconventional because of the Covid-19 pandemic and several other factors, he did not flinch on election night when it came to his prediction of a Biden victory, while also acknowledging the mercurial nature of voters.
“Look, I’m 73 years old and I’ve been doing these predictions for 40 years, and I get butterflies in my stomach every four years,” he said.
“I repeatedly reaffirmed this prediction, including when the votes began to come in and it looked like Donald Trump might be re-elected, but I understood that no election was final until all the votes were counted, and in most states the mail-in ballots, which were overwhelmingly Democratic, would be counted last."
Sure enough, Mr Biden secured enough electoral votes to become president-elect, and also won the popular vote by approximately five million ballots.
Mr Lichtman, however, did say he was surprised by several aspects of the election.
“First of all the magnitude of the turnout. This is a great tribute to the American people that they achieved a record turnout in percentages terms, the highest turnout since 1960,” he said. “That was surprising in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years.”
Mr Lichtman noted that both candidates managed to turn out significantly more voters than expected, and that ultimately, Mr Biden’s turnout operation surprised many.
“Not only is Biden on track for 306 electoral college votes, the same that Donald Trump got last time when he called it a landslide, but Biden is also on his way to a thumping popular vote victory of five million popular votes or more,” he said.
Prof Lichtman was also surprised by the disconnect between the White House race compared with the elections for the Senate, House of Representatives and state legislatures.
“On the other hand, Republicans did extremely well in elections for US Congress and actually gained seats when all the pollsters said they would lose seats, and they did very well in state legislative elections.”
Trump’s reaction to defeat 'the worst moment in US presidential history'
Prof Lichtman was rather taken aback by how Mr Trump handled the electoral defeat.
Every indication, including statements from Republican election officials throughout the country, indicate that this was a remarkably smooth, full and fair election, and Donald Trump's challenges are entirely baseless, frivolous and dangerous
Prof Alan Lichtman
“I think what’s happened with Donald Trump since the election represents the worst moment in US presidential history,” Mr Lichtman said, comparing it with how previous incumbents have reacted.
“We have never had a losing president, or for that matter, any losing candidate, so openly and falsely and dangerously attack the foundations of our democracy. He’s baselessly accusing the other side of widespread fraud when in fact there was no such fraud.”
Prof Lichtman also said that Mr Trump’s behaviour was being enabled by those who work directly for him, as well as those who serve in some of the highest positions of power for the Republican Party, such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell
“He’s the great enabler, saying ‘oh it’s not unusual to have all these challenges’, but it is unusual,” Prof Lichtman said. “It’s never happened before; no losing candidate has ever initiated widespread challenges to an election like this, particularly when these challenges have absolutely no basis in fact.
“Every indication, including statements from Republican election officials throughout the country, indicate that this was a remarkably smooth, full and fair election, and Donald Trump’s challenges are entirely baseless, frivolous and dangerous,” he said.
What is Lichtman's prediction for 2024?
Prof Lichtman, who details his strategy for predicting the White House winner in his book, Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House, said although it is very early, it would strongly be to the Democratic party's advantage if Mr Biden ran for re-election in 2024.
“With the sitting president running again, you’re not going to have a big internal party fight, that’s a major key, and you’re unlikely to have a big third-party movement. It's also worth noting that Biden will probably achieve major policy changes from the Trump administration,” he said.
It doesn't look like the Republicans have anyone who fulfils the 'challenge charisma key', the once-in-a-generation inspirational candidate, like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan
Prof Alan Lichtman
There are some, however, who see Mr Biden’s age, he is 77, as an obstacle to a second term.
Although Mr Biden has not indicated whether or not he plans to run for re-election, there is ample speculation that he might not.
If that is the case, Prof Lichtman says it will be a tougher journey for Democrats.
“You lose the incumbency key right off the top, and you’re much more likely to have an internal party battle for who will be the nominee to take over from Joe Biden,” he said.
Conversely, although he stopped just short of making a prediction, Mr Lichtman believes the 2024 presidential vote could be problematic for the Republican party.
“It doesn’t look like the Republicans have anyone who fulfils the ‘challenge charisma key’, the once-in-a-generation inspirational candidate, like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan,” he said, pointing to the potential for a power vacuum in the party.
How does Lichtman's 13 keys model work?
The 13 keys to the White House is an index of true or false responses to a set of questions, based on a simple pattern recognition algorithm.
"True" answers favour the re-election of the incumbent, while "false" answers favour the challenger.
When six or more of the statements are false, the incumbent party is predicted to lose.
Lichtman's 13 keys to the White House:
- Party mandate: After the midterm elections the incumbent party holds more seats in the US House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections.
- Contest: The candidate is nominated on the first ballot and wins at least two-thirds of the delegate votes.
- Incumbency: The sitting president is the party candidate.
- Third party: A third-party candidate wins at least 5 percent of the popular vote.
- Short-term economy: The National Bureau of Economic Research has either not declared a recession, or has declared it over prior to the election.
- Long-term economy: Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds the mean growth during the previous two terms.
- Policy change: The administration achieves a major policy change during the term comparable to the New Deal or the first-term Reagan Revolution.
- Social unrest: There is no social unrest during the term that is comparable to the upheavals of the post-civil war Reconstruction or of the 1960s, and is sustained or raises deep concerns about the unraveling of society.
- Scandal: There is no broad recognition of a scandal that directly touches upon the president
- Foreign or military failure: There is no major failure during the term comparable to Pearl Harbor or the Iran hostage crisis that appears to significantly undermine America's national interests or threaten its standing in the world.
- Foreign or military success: There is a major success during the term comparable to the winning of World War II or the Camp David Accords that significantly advances America's national interests or its standing in the world.
- Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is a national hero comparable to Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower or is an inspirational candidate comparable to Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.
- Challenger charisma: The challenger party candidate is not a national hero comparable to Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower and is not an inspirational candidate comparable to Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.
- Source: Allan J. Lichtman, The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency