The Best Presidential Prediction Model (Is Dumb AF)
Since time immemorial, folks have sought out those claiming they can predict the future, from the ancient haruspices rooting around in sheep guts to foretell the tides of battle to the more statistical, contemporary practice of letting octopi predict the score of soccer matches. But after a particular unexpected twist in 2016, people are in doubt whether any modern-day oracle can trip enough balls to divine who the next President of the United States will be.
Luckily, there's still one man whose unconventional prediction methods are shaking things up and leaving the competition quaking in their boots. That man is political historian Allan Lichtman. For the past forty years, he has been able to successfully predict every single U.S. presidential election. (He did pick Al Gore in 2000 but only got that wrong on the technicality that having the most votes doesn't matter in American democracy). And Lichtman succeeds where his colleagues fail because, instead of collecting statistics or polling potential voters like a typical political pundit, the professor employs a statistical model from a different field: Soviet seismology.
During his tenure at the International Institute of Earthquake Prediction Theory and Mathematical Geophysics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Keilis-Borok chased the holy grail that is earthquake prediction. Sadly, like all others, his mathematical model failed to systematically predict where the next Big One was going to hit. Mother Nature is too fickle to contain within a few algorithms.
But you know what's far less complicated than slabs of earth? Voters. In 1981, Keilis-Borok approached Lichtman proposing they'd use his earthquake theories to predict U.S. presidential elections. Together the pair devised a model so simple even a stable genius could remember it. It only involves 13 true/false queries, which Lichtman calls the 13 Keys To The White House. If the majority is true, then the incumbent party stays in the White House; if false, it's time to make America Different Again. These Keys are:
- The incumbent party gained seats during the midterm elections.
- There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
- The incumbent party candidate is the sitting President.
- There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
- The short-term economy is strong.
- The economic growth during this term has been as good as during the previous two terms.
- The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
- There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
- The White House is untainted by a major scandal.
- The White House suffered no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
- The White House achieved a major success in foreign or military affairs.
- The incumbent party candidate is charismatic.
- The challenging party candidate is not charismatic.
Why does it work every time? Because of a core earthquake prediction principle: you don't look for the quake, you look for the ground that's ripe for one. Likewise, Lichtman's and Keilis-Borok's predictors mostly ignore the actual presidential candidates and instead focus on their political landscape. If that landscape is unstable enough for an 'earthquake,' i.e., a shift in power, then the challenging party could field two pyromaniac 12-year-olds in a trench coat for all the Keys care and still get them into the White House.
Yet, despite Lichtman's way seeming foolproof, personalities instead of conditions might still play the deciding role in the upcoming election. You must be wondering: "So, which demented old white dude do the Keys say will lead me for the next four years?" The New York Times asked Lichtman precisely that, and he prophesied that the 2020 election would go to (drumroll) Joe Biden.
But Biden only has one key more than Trump, and it seems that the key that could swing it is the one that asks if the current President is "charismatic." Lichtman claims that he isn't, but the professor wouldn't be the first to underestimate Trump's death cult of personality. So even by looking at the most accurate, facts-based prediction model in the history of U.S. politics, the 2020 elections will be won by who the American public finds more charismatic:
Or Joe Biden …
Yeah. Good luck with that.
For more weird tangents and more charisma than the incumbent party candidate, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top image: U.S. National Parks Service