Conventional wisdom said Trump couldn’t win in 2016. This historian’s ‘keys’ said he would. What are those keys telling us today?

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Recent polling news has been very promising for Donald Trump. But with nine months still to go in the presidential race, American University professor Allan Lichtman says Joe Biden holds an edge according to the historical “keys” to victory.

For now, anyway.

Five of the 13 historical predictors of victory favor Biden, while three favor Trump, and the rest are still up for grabs, Lichtman told MarketWatch in an interview.

That leaves the Democrats praying that foreign policy and the economy will go the president’s way in the months ahead — and that there isn’t a strong third-party campaign.

Lichtman, now 77, coined the “Keys to the White House” phrase in a popular book first published in the early 1980s. These “keys” consist of 13 indicators that supposedly determine the outcomes of presidential elections. Lichtman argues they have held good since at least 1860.

At one notable moment in recent history, the “keys” predicted Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016 — against all the conventional wisdom and most polling.

This time around, Lichtman says, President Biden is an incumbent running for re-election (Key No. 3), has not faced a serious challenge for his party’s nomination (Key No. 2) and has made major policy changes (Key No. 7). 

(The keys make no judgment about whether the policy changes undertaken are for the better.)

And the long-term economic trend is running Biden’s way: “Real” — or after-inflation — per capita economic growth over the past four years has equaled or exceeded the average growth rate during the previous two presidential terms (Key No. 6).

It has, too. I ran the numbers. Based on International Monetary Fund data, the U.S. economy is on track to post average real growth of 2.5% per person during the 2021–25 presidential term. The average from 2012 to 2020? Just under 1%.

No contest. (And, once again, for this exercise it doesn’t matter why.)

More contentious is Key No. 13: “The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.” Clearly, to some (even many), Trump is just that. Lichtman, to be fair, is no fan of Trump and is a Democrat. But he argues that this 13th key refers only to broadly bipartisan or national heroes à la, say, Eisenhower.

On the other hand, Lichtman notes, two or three of these indicators clearly favor Trump. After the 2022 midterm elections, the Democrats hold fewer seats in Congress than they did after the previous midterms, in 2018 (Key No. 1). And Biden, per Lichtman, is neither charismatic nor a national hero (No. 12). 

It would be hard to point to any “major foreign policy or military success” under this administration (No. 11).

Foreign and military success or failure appears twice on Lichtman’s list of keys: The incumbent party loses a point for a big failure but also loses a point for the absence of a big success. In other words, this can be a zero-sum game.

From the archives (January 2024): Biden urges Congress to pass border bill as House speaker suggests it may be ‘dead on arrival’

One of the challenges of Lichtman’s keys is that many are subjective or, at minimum, require judgment calls. For the sake of this exercise, does the Afghanistan withdrawal in the summer of 2021 count as a major foreign-policy loss? Lichtman, suggesting no, cites as evidence that it was hardly mentioned during the Republican presidential debates. People seem to have forgotten about it, he says.

A classic example of a loss would be the Iranian hostage crisis that helped bring about President Jimmy Carter’s loss in 1980 to Ronald Reagan — a crisis made worse by a failed rescue raid that left eight U.S. soldiers dead. 

From the archives (March 2023): A good deal of what we think we know about Jimmy Carter, we don’t know

Meanwhile, the economy is not in recession (Key No. 5). Whether it stays out of recession through the autumn is another matter.

Opinion (January 2024): Americans feel worse about the economy than they should. And that’s bad news for Biden.

From the archives (January 2024): Trump says he hopes the market crashes in 2024 under Biden: ‘I don’t want to be Herbert Hoover’

One of the most fascinating aspects of these so-called keys to the White House is that they give you an intriguing view of the battleground for the election. An eruption of major social unrest (such as in 1968 or 2020) would be a negative for Biden (Key No. 8). So would be a strong third-party campaign, as in, say, 1980 (John Anderson), 2000 (Ralph Nader) and 2016 (Jill Stein). So would be a major scandal hitting the administration (Key No. 9).

These days, the issue of a “major scandal” is probably the most subjective indicator of all. Ever since the advent of cable news, the interwebs and “smart” — ha! — phones, every administration is tainted by multiple major scandals. In the eyes of its opponents, that is. Lichtman merely points out that, so far, the Republicans do not seem to have succeeded in pinning a major scandal on the Biden administration in the eyes of the general public. 

From the archives (September 2023): House Republicans hold first impeachment hearing for Biden, which White House calls a ‘baseless stunt’

Also read (September 2023): ‘He’s being squeezed’: McCarthy yields to right-flank insistence on Biden impeachment inquiry amid intensifying threat to speakership

So, right now, Biden has the edge. “A lot of things would have to go wrong [for the election keys] to go against Biden,” Lichtman says. “But they could. I am very careful in not making a prediction.”

He expects to call the race, based on the “keys,” in early August.

As for those who may be skeptical because Lichtman himself is a member of Biden’s party? “Here is the secret to being a successful forecaster,” he says. “The most important thing is keeping your own personal views out of it. I’ve called about as many Republican wins and Democratic wins. In 2016 I was virtually alone in predicting a win for Donald Trump.”

More from Brett Arends:

How those strong jobs figures could weaken Biden’s re-election prospects

Worried about what a Trump or Biden presidency will do to your 401(k)?

Hey, billionaires, stop giving money to Harvard

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