Data says: Democrats need Biden to run for a second term
Politics aside, if you study the data trends, the 13 “Keys to the White House, ” created by analyst and historian Allan J. Lichtman, have demonstrated an uncanny knack for calling U.S. presidential elections. There have been a few hiccups, where it called Al Gore over George W. Bush in 2000, with Gore winning the popular vote and Bush winning the Electoral College. When a reverse phenomenon occurred in 2016, it correctly called Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, with Trump winning the Electoral College and Clinton winning the popular vote. The key’s predictions now focus solely on the winner of the Electoral College.
The 13 keys are essentially a checklist of “true” or “false” statements. For President Biden to be reelected, at most five of the 13 keys can be false. Although we stand just under 21 months from Election Day 2024, where do these keys stand? Are there any choices that either party can make to enhance their chances of winning the White House?
Four keys already appear to be false. They include:
- Midterm gains in the House (Republicans narrowly won control of the House).
- No scandal (the classified documents discovery has the potential to grow into a full-fledged scandal, given that Republicans now control the House and will be investigating the issue).
- Military success (nothing is on the horizon, though the war in Ukraine or China’s balloons can quickly flip this key).
- Charismatic incumbent (Biden has many good qualities, but charisma is not one of them).
There are seven keys that are on track to be true. They include:
- No challenger to Biden during the primaries (the Democrats remain united behind Biden. If, however, Biden is unable to run again, perhaps for health reasons, then this Key could turn false, giving Republicans a more favorable pathway to the White House).
- No third party (though if former President Trump decides to run, this will split the Republican vote and may actually help the Democrats).
- Strong long-term economy (this is difficult to forecast, but the long-term prospects for the nation’s economy appear sound. Of course, if the debt ceiling maneuvering forces a default on the national debt, then this key could turn false).
- Major policy change (the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act qualifies to keep this key true. With a Republican-controlled House, any new major policy initiatives will face strong headwinds).
- No social unrest (the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol occurred before Biden took office).
- No foreign/military failure (there is nothing on the horizon, though the Ukraine or China situations can unravel to flip this key),
- Uncharismatic challenger (based on who appears interested in running amongst Republicans).
That leaves just two keys up for grabs: a strong short-term economy and Biden deciding to run for a second term.
If the economy heals over the next 18 months, then the Democrats are poised to hold onto the White House. Biden’s recent State of the Union address clearly focused on economic growth and high-paying jobs for all. If the economy stagnates and inflation persists, then Biden must run for a second term to limit the number of false keys to five. If he becomes incapacitated for any reason, then this key turns false, and the Republicans are poised to retake the White House.
Note that if the Republicans put forward a yet-to-be revealed charismatic candidate, this would turn another key false, making it mandatory for Biden to be available and run for a second term.
Of course, all the keys are subject to interpretation, so what appear definite false or true keys today may flip with some unforeseen events.
The primary flaw with this exercise is that the keys are not meant to reverse engineer the winner of the presidential election, but rather predict it. Nonetheless, these 13 keys have proven to be amazingly prescient in their ability to foresee the election’s winner. This means that using the keys to guide actions leading up to the election may be fruitful and prudent for both parties.
Polls provide a snapshot in time of voter preferences. Yet, how people will vote in 2024 cannot be captured today. In contrast, the keys have proven to be reliable predictors for decades and provide a more stable forecasting framework.
The takeaway from this exercise is that who the Republicans put forward as their candidate and whether Biden chooses to and is capable of running for a second term will be critical factors in the outcome of the 2024 Presidential election.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist and operations researcher, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.
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