“I will share some insight with you,” said Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University, when asked about whether or not he was ready to make his annual US presidential election prediction in favour of the incumbent, President Joe Biden.
“You know, so many Democrats are saying, ‘Oh my, Biden is too old, we need to get someone else’ – well, that’s a recipe for losing the election.”
Prof Lichtman’s 13 trends, or “keys” system, has been a much-talked-about apparatus when it comes to predicting US presidential elections.
“The keys have been right since 1984,” said Prof Lichtman, pointing out that he has accurately used the keys to predict both Democratic and Republican White House victories.
Who is Allan Lichtman and what has he predicted?
While known in various political science circles for much of his career, Prof Lichtman broke through to the mainstream right before the 2016 US presidential election when he accurately predicted Donald Trump would defeat heavily favoured Hillary Clinton, a prediction that went against many polls and analysis at the time.
Shortly after Mr Trump won the White House in 2016, he sent Prof Lichtman a signed note.
“Professor, congrats, good call,” it read.
Prof Lichtman, however, was also among the first to predict that Mr Trump would be impeached, which came to fruition in 2021 shortly after the insurrection he incited following his electoral defeat to Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
As for the 2024 US presidential election, Prof Lichtman said he’s not ready to lock in a prediction yet.
“The keys are still uncertain,” he said.
For some of the keys, such as incumbency, minimal social unrest, economy and lack of a Democratic primary challenger, Mr Biden does appear to have an advantage.
What remains to be seen, however, is what might happen if some of the other keys become a factor such as a third-party candidate, potential scandals or a potentially charismatic challenger from the Republican side.
Could Mr Biden get re-elected?
Several polls do suggest voters are concerned about Mr Biden’s age.
At 80, he is the oldest to serve as president, compared to Ronald Reagan, who was 77 at the end of his presidency.
Prof Lichtman cautioned that although it might be tempting for Democrats to run someone else, doing so would jeopardise several of the keys.
He also pointed to the potential Republican challenger, Donald Trump, aged 77, as having a similar vulnerability.
“Look, it’s not like Biden might be running against a 45 year old,” Prof Lichtman said.
Worth noting is that, although he trails in the polls, if Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis becomes the nominee, he would be 44 years old.
Either way, Prof Lichtman said disregarding the importance of incumbency would be a self-inflicted electoral wound from which the Democrats might not recover.
It also remains to be seen how the appointment of a special council to investigate Hunter Biden, Mr Biden's son, might play out in the public eye leading up to the election day, which could cause another key to turn against him.
Prof Lichtman's system has seen its occasional critics, such as prominent statistician and journalist Nate Silver, who once described the 13 keys method as “superficial” back in 2011, but he pointed out that his prediction of a Barack Obama victory at the time came to fruition.
“I wrote him [Mr Silver] a 30-page response … and offered to write a joint article with him,” Prof Lichtman said. He added that he wanted to write about how two analysts using two totally different methods could ultimately come to the same conclusion.
FiveThirtyEight, founded by Mr Silver and operated by ABCNews, ultimately published Prof Lichtman's response, but Mr Silver did not directly address it.
“I never heard a word from him,” Prof Lichtman said.
There was also the caveat of the 2000 election, when Prof Lichtman predicted a victory for Al Gore.
On paper, of course, he was right. Mr Gore won the popular vote over George W Bush by 543,000 votes, and by most standards, probably would have won recounts in the much-contested state Florida, but ultimately the Supreme Court put a stop to those recounts and sent Mr Gore – who was vice president at the time – packing from the White House.
“Gore, based on the actual verdict of the voters was the winner … what happened in Florida was voter suppression,” Prof Lichtman said. “And I wasn't the only one to come to that conclusion.”
In terms of media appearances and interview requests, Prof Lichtman's presence reached a crescendo shortly after his 2016 prediction of a Trump upset.
That prediction, followed by his prediction of a Biden victory in 2020, propelled his method to new heights of popularity, but Prof Lichtman's resume is significantly broader than his recent presidential predictions.
“I won over $100,000 on Tic Tac Dough,” he said, referring to the US game show that ran from 1978 to 1986.
“I've also been a an expert witness in more than 100 civil rights cases.”
Mr Lichtman said he's used to seeing his methods and predictions critiqued by both Democrats and Republicans, but always makes sure to point out that his predictions are not endorsements.
“If you let your personal views infect your work, you will be useless as a predictor,” he said. “The 13 prediction keys are a robust system and they're based on 160 years of American political experience going back to the days of Abe Lincoln.”
On the Republican side, Prof Lichtman says some of his earliest consulting work was advice he gave to Ronald Reagan's adviser, Lee Atwater, a major figure in US conservatism.
“He wanted to know what would happen if Ronald Reagan didn't run again, because you had a situation similar to what you a have with Biden today,” he said.
“I told him, 'You don't want to lose the party battle or the charisma key'.”
Conversely, Prof Lichtman also says he has had conversations with Mr Biden's former chief of staff, Ron Klaine, who was curious as to how to best position the Democrat for re-election.
“I told him the best thing Biden could do was to govern well, that's what's going to matter in the end,” he said.
“All politics aside, the American people aren't fooled or tricked. They'll give you four more years if you merit it, and if not they'll turn to alternatives.”
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 per cent 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 unravelling 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 Harbour 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 the Second World War 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.