Retrospectively, the keys accurately account for the results of every presidential election from 1860 through 1980. Prospectively, as of 2010, the keys had predicted well ahead of time the outcomes of all seven presidential elections from 1984 through 2008. The keys provide election forecasts long before the polls or any other model, because they are based on the premise that elections are decided primarily by the performance of the party holding the White House.

The Keys demonstrate that is governing that counts in presidential elections, 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 that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies — the usual grist for the punditry mills — count for virtually nothing on Election Day.

The Keys are 13 true/false questions, with an answer of true favoring reelection of the party holding the White House. When the answers to eight or more of these questions are true, the incumbent party wins. In January 2010, my analysis showed that the incumbent Democrats would likely have nine keys in their favor. The Keys track the big picture of governance and do not readily change. Since 2010, I have changed the tally only by adding an additional Key for the elimination of Osama Bin Laden. This left the incumbent Democrats with a ten key advantage, two more than necessary to predict Obama’s reelection. I rigorously held to this prediction through all ups and downs of the campaign. 

The keys additionally prove that despite much commentary to the contrary presidential elections are not decided by the economy alone. Instead, the keys system provides a complete and balanced assessment of the many factors that determine the winners and losers of these quadrennial contests. Based just on the economy, it would not have been possible to forecast an Obama win in 2012.

Despite his victory, President Obama faces a daunting task in governing during the next four years. Like most political leaders, Obama has fallen victim to the consultants, pollsters, and handlers who unfortunately have come to dominate politics in the United States. Instead of presenting a detailed, substantive message that clearly foreshadows his second term priorities, he ran a typical safety-first campaign. In his second term he needs to break free of the political hucksters and reestablish the special mystical bond with the American people that only a president can achieve. He needs to act boldly and forthrightly on the immense problems confronting America. These include not just the economy and the deficit, but also the massive redistribution of income and wealth to the rich and the threat of catastrophic climate change, which may be the most daunting challenge to our survival in the human history.

Lichtman is a professor of History at American University.