Presidential elections are not horse races. Rather, a pragmatic American electorate chooses a president according to the performance of the party holding the White House as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term: economic boom and bust, foreign-policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal and policy innovation. Nothing a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls.
This new vision of American politics is based on The Keys to the White House, a historically based prediction system that provides insight into presidential prospects for the 2012 election at a time when the Republican candidate is unknown, other forecasting systems are silent, and polls are about as accurate as the flipping of coins.
I developed The Keys to the White House, in 1981, in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, an authority on the mathematics of prediction models. Retrospectively, the Keys accurately account retrospectively for the results of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980. Prospectively, the Keys predicted well ahead of time the popular-vote winners of all seven presidential elections from 1984 through 2008.
Despite President Barack Obama’s mediocre approval rating, the Keys system now points to his reelection in 2012. The system also shows the circumstances that could boost the prospects for a Republican candidate.
The Keys to the White House consist of 13 true-false questions that gauge the performance and strength of the incumbent presidential party. When five or fewer keys are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
The incumbent Democrats now have only four keys likely turned against them for 2012, two short of the fatal six negative keys. Thus, President Obama could endure an additional setback and still win reelection.
The following nine keys favor the Democratic Party:
- The lack of any likely nomination challenge to President Obama secures Incumbent Party Contest Key 2.
- Obama’s virtually certain nomination locks up Incumbency Key 3.
- The absence of any likely third-party challenger with chances of winning at least 5 percent of the vote gives the Democrats the Third-Party Key 4.
- The economy will probably be in the recovery stage in 2012, gaining Short-Term Economy Key 5.
- The enactment of the healthcare bill, perhaps the most significant social legislation since the mid-1960s, secures Policy Change Key 7.
- Even with the Tea Party protests, the absence of sustained, violent upheavals like those of the 1960s, avoids loss of the Social Unrest Key 8.
- It is unlikely Obama will suffer a scandal comparable to Teapot Dome in the 1920s or Watergate in the 1970s, averting the loss of Scandal Key 9.
- Despite the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is not likely to suffer a major foreign policy or military failure, comparable to Pearl Harbor or losing the Vietnam War, keeping Foreign/Military Failure Key 10 in line.
- No Republican challenger matches the charisma of Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, keeping Democrats from losing the Challenger Charisma/Hero Key 13.
The following four keys now count against the incumbent party:
- The party’s prospective losses in the 2010 midterm elections will probably cost it Mandate Key 1.
- The weak economy during Obama’s first year in office portends the loss of Long-Term Economy Key 6.
- Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has not gained the major triumph abroad needed to secure the Foreign/Military Success Key 11.
- Obama has not regained the magic of his campaign and now falls short of gaining the Incumbent Charisma/Hero Key 12.
Of course, circumstances can shift before the 2012 election. On the negative side for President Obama, the economy could slide into recession again during the election year or he could face a scandal or an unexpected disaster abroad. Robust economic growth during the next two years could regain the long-term economy key. Obama could also regain his charisma or achieve a foreign policy triumph such as capturing Osama Bin Laden.
Despite an always-uncertain future, President Obama is holding a much stronger hand for 2012 than his Republican opponents. The very early verdict of the Keys to the White House is that the president will secure reelection in 2012.
Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and the author of The Keys to the White House.