US election forecaster with near-perfect track record not ready to call 2024 just yet

An American historian with an uncanny track record of predicting the winners of US presidential elections expects Joe Biden to win his rematch with Donald Trump later this year.

Allan Lichtman told RNZ’s Sunday Morning “a lot of things would have to go wrong to predict a Biden defeat”, but he was not quite ready yet to lock his prediction in.

In the early 1980s Lichtman developed the ‘Keys to the White House’ system – a checklist of 13 statements where if five or fewer are false, the candidate for the incumbent party will win; but if six or more are false, the challenger will.

The keys are based on a range of factors, including the state of the economy, the previous mid-term election results, social unrest, charisma and more.

Using this system, Lichtman has correctly predicted the winners of every presidential election since 1984, except 2000.

Even then, his pick – Democrat Al Gore – won the popular vote, but was famously denied the presidency by the courts.

Lichtman went against the pollsters in 2016, predicting a Trump victory over Hillary Clinton, and was sent a congratulatory note by the former reality TV star.

“At the same time, I made my prediction of a Trump impeachment before he was even elected – but he didn’t acknowledge that,” Lichtman joked.

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Lichtman correctly predicted that Biden would defeat the incumbent Trump in 2020, making Trump the first sitting US president in nearly three decades to not be re-elected.

Lichtman also foresaw incumbent George H. W. Bush’s loss in 1992 to upstart Bill Clinton, despite the polls.

“In 1988, George H. W. Bush in May – we’re not even in May yet – was 17 points behind his opponent, the Democratic governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, and every pundit had written off H. W. Bush.

“And I wrote in the Washtingtonian magazine in May of 1988 not only is Bush gonna win, but he’s gonna win in a shoo-in, because forget about the polls. He’s running on the Reagan record of peace, prosperity and domestic tranquillity. And of course, Bush went on to win quite handily‚Ķ

“And a lot of people were predicting again H. W. Bush’s win, and I predicted a Clinton win and again, he won pretty handily.”

The 13 keys are:

  • the incumbent winning more seats in the previous mid-term elections
  • no serious internal party challenger to the incumbent
  • the incumbent is the sitting president
  • there is no serious third-party candidate
  • a strong short-term economy (ie no recession during the campaign)
  • a strong long-term economy (economic growth higher than previous two terms)
  • the incumbent made major policy changes
  • no significant social unrest
  • no major scandals for the incumbent administration
  • no major military or foreign policy failure
  • a major win for foreign policy or the military
  • a charismatic candidate for the incumbent party
  • the challenger being uncharismatic.

In the interview with Sunday Morning, Lichtman explained how so far, it appeared Biden has seven keys ‘true’ at this stage, two false, and the rest unclear.

The Democrats lost a few seats in the mid-terms, and Biden was not the most charismatic of leaders, being a “vanilla candidate”, Lichtman said.

On the other hand, he had no serious contender for the Democrat nomination; he was the incumbent president; the US economy was not in recession; the economy had been stronger under Biden’s leadership than it was under Trump and during Barack Obama’s second term; Biden has had “more policy accomplishments domestically than any president since Lyndon Johnson”; and the Republicans had “come up absolutely empty” in their attempts to pin a scandal on the president, partly because he is “vanilla”.

As for Trump’s charisma, Lichtman said that key favoured Biden, because “it’s got to be broad charismatic appeal”, which Trump did not have.

“It can’t just be appealed to a narrow base… Donald Trump lost the popular vote in two elections combined by 10 million votes, so his appeal to the narrow base does not turn that key against the Democrats.”

Keys still in the undecided column included whether a third party challenger could disrupt the usual two-horse race (for example, Robert F Kennedy Jr); social unrest (the recent university Gaza protests); and the two concerning foreign policy (ongoing conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine).

“In 2020 I made my call in early August, so I would expect to make the call then, but you never know. Events are so fluid. Things are so complex right now with two wars raging, you know, these protests, an uncertain economy – I presume keys will fall into place by then but I can’t absolutely guarantee it.”

But when he did, he would make a call one way or the other – and would not hedge his bets.

“I do this every four years and I have to say I get real nervous – because unlike the pollsters, I tell you who’s gonna win and who’s gonna lose,” Lichtman said.

“I go out on a limb every four years. And I have to say, you know, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and it makes me a little nervous.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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