A few days ago I finished a book that I had heard about at the Silver State AP Conference a few years ago. The teacher of my class on AP U.S. Government & Politics explained to us the thirteen indicators or “Keys” that can accurately predict who will win the popular vote in any given presidential election since the election of 1860. While this system is not a sure guarantee since the winner of the popular vote has lost on several occasions (the most recent being the 2000 election), it is a fairly good indicator of who the President will be when the election is over.
There are several things to explain. First, their are thirteen indicators or “Keys” that can be turned in favor or against the incumbent party candidate. If six or more of the “Keys” statements are found to be false (Turned against the incumbent party candidate) than the challenging party candidate will win the popular vote. If five or less of the “Keys” states are found to be false (Turned against the incumbent party candidate) then the incumbent party candidate will win the popular vote. Let’s get started on the individual keys and their application to both the most recent and the forthcoming Presidential Elections.
NOTE: There are many keys that cannot necessarily be predicted for the 2012 election at this time. The predictions made in the analysis are my own and reflect my best guess as to the situation of the keys as they may fall in the 2012 election. This is not meant to be biased in anyway specifically against the current administration. It is meant as fair assessment of how the keys may have already turned or will turn against the incumbent administration. If a specific key is marked by a question mark that means this could still change in the months leading up to the general campaign and election.
Key 1: Party Mandate – After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seat in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm election.
2008: False (0-1)
2012: False (0-1)
This key is based on the proportional changes in the U.S. House of Representatives of the incumbent versus challenging parties. The incumbent party wins the key if it achieves a net gain in its House seats from the previous presidential and midterm elections combined. In the 2008 election, the Republicans, the incumbent party in the White House, had already lost 31 seats in the previous midterm election which meant this key was turned in favor of the challenging party, the Democrats. The same is true for the upcoming 2012 Presidential Election. The Republicans (Challenging party) gained 63 seats in the House during the 2010 Election, which even if you combine the previous gains in the last two House elections is a net gain over the democrats.
Key 2: Nomination Contest – There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
2008: True (1-1)
2012: True? (1-1)
This key is turned against the incumbent party candidate if their is a serious competition for the party nomination prior to the general election. To turn this key for the incumbent party, a candidate must “win at least two-thirds of the total delegate vote on the first ballot at the nomination convention” (Litchtman 26). In 2008 the incumbent party nominee was John McCain who won the nomination with 98% of the delegate votes. As of right now there is not Democratic Party candidate that will more than likely challenge sitting President Barrak Obama. There may be a later runner but for now it is true, and will more than likely stay that way.
Key 3: Incumbency – The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.
2008: False (1-2)
2012: True (2-1)
This key is self-explanatory so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. In 2008, the incumbent party (Republicans) could not nominate the sitting President since he had already been elected to two terms as limited by the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution. In 2012, barring any candidates challenging President Obama to the Democratic Party nomination he this key will turn in his favor.
Key 4: Third Party – Their is no significant third-party or independent campaign.
2008: True (2-2)
2012: True? (3-1)
For this key to be turned against the incumbent party candidate, a third party candidate must garner significant support on the night of the election. The threshold that one or more third party candidates must meet is five percent or more of the popular vote. In 2008, their were several candidates from third parties that ran also in the election, but none of them alone or combined met the five percent threshold. We cannot necessarily accurately predict this one at the present moment. The Libertarian Party has a good chance of getting additional support this year because of the huge backlash against the Obama administration’s policies. The Tea Party Movement could also play a factor, though they are not an established political party in the U.S.
Key 5: Short Term Economy – The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
2008: False (2-3)
2012: False? (3-2)
This is the second best predictor of an election. In all eight elections in which the economy has been in a recession the incumbent party has lost the election (Lichtman 32). This key plays not only on facts presented by experts, but also on the perceptions of the electorate. In 2008, the economy was definitely in the middle of a recession that had started a year or more before. In 2012, we don’t know accurately yet if we will be in a recession. Their could be a big change in policy that brings us out of this current recession before the campaign. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research the economic recession ended in June 2009. But the fact is many people in the electorate don’t buy the facts. Unless something drastic is done in the next few months that spur economic growth this key could be turned against the Obama administration.
Key 6: Long-term Economy – Real annual per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
2008: False (2-4)
2012: False? (3-3)
This key relies on broad based and long term indicators of economic growth. While the voters may not make the calculations themselves they can notice a long term trend of economic indicators. This is also the one that confounds the most out of people when trying to predict. In 2008, the incumbent party candidate John McCain had to deal with the down turn of the economy at the start of and end of Bush’s terms. There was also significant growth at the end of Clinton’s last term and after the initial recession of Bush’s first term. In 2012, President Obama has nothing to lose in this area because Bush’s last term was atrocious in terms of economic growth. This key will turn on the whether it exceeds the mean growth of both of Bush’s terms. I have looked at numerous pieces of information in trying to predict this key. It is my estimation that this key will not turn in favor for Obama; here is why.
Using the chart above I figured out the average GDP (gross domestic product) – real growth rate of the United States. In Bush’s first term the average was 2.7125%; his second term was 2.675%. So far in the Obama administration he has an average of 0.4% of economic growth. Obama has a lot of ground to make up to even come close to that kind of growth with his last eighteen months of this current term. Not impossible but I think everyone can agree this key will not be won by him.
Key 7: Policy Change – The incumbent party administration effects major changes in national policy.
2008: False (2-5)
2012: True (4-3)
This key is also fairly self-explanatory. Again these keys do not rely on political ideology or partisan politics. The policy change must not only depart from established practices or break new ground, but this must be widely perceived at the time (Lichtman 37). This can be both domestic or foreign policies. In 2008 this key was turned against John McCain because the Bush Administration did not have any major policy changes in his second term. Most of them were continuations of what had already been accomplished during his first term. President Obama secured this key during this first two years in office with the health insurance reforms that are now known as Obamacare. Even if the legislation is repealed or deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, this key still will turn in his favor.
Key 8: Social Unrest – There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
2008: True (3-5)
2012: True (5-3)
To turn this key against the incumbent party “unrest must manifest itself in violent challenges to authority that either are sustained or raise concerns that remain unresolved at the time of the election campaign. This key shows that the administration is unable to cope with with crisis (Lichtman 38). This key has not been turned against an incumbent since 1968. While there have been major political protests against both President Bush and Obama neither of these have been violent challenges against the government. It is unlikely to turn against Obama in the next eighteen months.
Key 9: Scandal – The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
2008: True (4-5)
2012: True? (6-3)
Only one administration has ever survived a major scandal to be elected to a second term and that is because the incumbent candidate could not be linked to the scandal itself. A major scandal must “bring discredit upon the president himself, calling into question his personal integrity, or at least his faithfulness in upholding the law.” These must touch the president personally or actions of other administration officials that the president “mishandled” (Lichtman 39). While there may have been some questionable actions by the President Bush in during this second term, there was nothing to the level described above to turn the key against the incumbent party. As of right now there is not pending scandal directly attached to the President. Though, given the information coming forward about Operation Fast and Furious this key could easily be turned against President Obama.
Key 10: Foreign/Military Failure – The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
2008: False (4-6)
2012: False? (6-4)
“A foreign policy setback can result in a single, ‘splash’ event that commands public attention or from sustained disappointment with the conduct of high-visibility foreign enterprise” (Lichtman 43). In 2008, the failure of a major successes in the Iraq War turned this key against President Bush and the incumbent party candidate John McCain. This key could very much be up in the air and subject interpretation. I predict this key being turned against President Obama because of the many minor things he has been subjected himself too in foreign affairs. The many occasions of him bowing to foreign leaders, limited involvement in the political protests around the world, being dressed down by Israeli PM Netanyahu while out of the country, and the several times he has brought himself forward at several world conferences and not achieved any success could all work against him with this key.
Key 11: Foreign/Military Success – The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
2008: False (4-7)
2012: True (7-4)
“The great majority of foreign successes have been decisive victories in war or momentous treaties. Judgement about foreign successes… must be made in the context of the times” (Lichtman 44, 45). The book states that this key turned against President Bush, but due to a “lack of an offsetting triumph abroad” (Lichtman 178). I would argue that the Surge tactic of President Bush as recommended by General Petraeus in 2007. It can be argued that the increased number of soldiers in was a success in that it helped stem that sectarian and terrorism based violence in that nation. I am not sure whether or not it might meet the high standard of this key though; so I keep it as a false statement and turn it against the incumbent party candidate. Even if it had been a true statement, the keys still work because the incumbent party candidate would still have six keys turned against them, therefor they lose. This key is hung one major military success of President Obama: the assassination of Osama bin Laden. While it may have only given him a slight bump in the polls and it was accomplished because of Bush Administration policies, it is a decisive victory against our enemies, Al-Qaeda.
Key 12: Incumbent Charisma – The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
2008: False (4-8)
2012: True (8-4)
“Few candidates have reached this threshold… but only when there is an extraordinary persuasive or dynamic candidate, or one who has attained heroic status through achievements prior to his nomination” (Lichtman 46). In 2008, the incumbent party candidate, John McCain could not turn this key. While he was a Vietnam Veteran, spending many years abroad in a prisoner of war camp, he does not have a heroic status in the military. Meanwhile, President Obama is without a charismatic candidate; that is without doubt or debate.
Key 13: Challenger Charisma – The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or national hero.
2008: False (4-9)
2012: ????? (8-4 or 5)
This is the only key where the challenging party organization and candidate can affect any major change in the campaign. The party must be willing to nominate a person who matches the description above in Key 12. In 2008, this was Senator Barrack Obama, as stated before, it is beyond doubt that he is charismatic. In the upcoming election, this could go either way. A nomination of a candidate like Sarah Palin or Governor Chris Christie, or a national hero like Generals McCrystal or Petraeus could turn this key against the incumbent party. This one cannot be determined until early next year.
2012 Predicted Results: Undecided
Looking at the predictions above President Obama could very easily attain a win in the popular vote and a second term as President of the United States. But if you look at there are several of the keys that could be in question or interpreted in a different way. If the Republicans nominate a charismatic candidate and Operation Fast and Furious gets pegged directly to President Obama, we may have a new President on January 20, 2013. Some of the false statements could also be returned to a true as we approach the election as well and therefore give him a second term.
I would be interested in you, my readers, views of the these keys and how they can be turned for the 2012 Presidential election. Remember, this predicts who wins the popular vote, not the Presidency itself, because of the electoral college.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Class dismissed.