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Who's Gonna Win This Thing?, Part IV: Lichtman Makes His Pick

Allan Lichtman, who is in many ways the poor man's Nate Silver, has been predicting presidential outcomes since 1984. He's 9-for-10 in that time, and he's now tentatively made his 2024 pick: Joe Biden. Lichtman actually tipped his hand a couple of weeks ago, but he was the subject of a big piece this week by blogger Chris Cillizza, whose uncritical approach to politics got him canned by CNN. Thanks to the Cillizza piece, Lichtman got a lot of headlines in the last few days.

Lichtman's system, for those who are not familiar, involves 13 "keys" he's identified. If 6 or more of Lichtman's keys are "false" for the party that holds the White House, they will lose. If less than 6 keys are "false," the incumbent party wins. Here are the keys:

  1. Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
  2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
  3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
  4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
  5. Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
  6. Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
  7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
  8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
  9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
  10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
  11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
  12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
  13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Lichtman has 7 "trues" for Biden: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 13. He has two "falses": 1 and 12. And he has four undecided: 4, 8, 10, 11. While his "final" prediction won't be made until August, he says the odds of all four of those keys turning against Biden are small. If even one of them turns in his favor, then that's only five "false" keys and Biden wins, according to the system.

We've addressed this a bit in the Q&A, but we thought we would do it more fully here: We are not fans of Lichtman's system, for a number of reasons. To start, the questions are... imprecise. There's a lot of subjective judgment in there, since they rely on the meaning of phrases like "major changes" and "serious contest" and "significant third party." Also, there are too many things where the keys overlap. For example, the Middle East protests on campus—are those "social unrest," or are they a "foreign/military failure," or are they both?

In addition, the system is absolutely unable to predict the extent of a victory or loss. Looking backward, nine of the keys went against the Republicans in 1960, which is a high number and would seem to imply a blowout. And yet, it was one of the closest elections in history. To take another example, four keys went against the Republicans in both 1880 and 1924, which would seem to suggest similarly close outcomes. However, 1880 was decided by 0.9% of the vote and 59 EVs, while 1924 was decided by 25.2% and 246 EVs. If a system can't identify degrees of victory, that kind of suggests it's not measuring things very well. And that's before we get into the fact that applying subjective keys to an election after the results are already known can encourage squeezing the data to fit the narrative.

Most importantly, the thing that gets Lichtman so much press is that he called those 10 elections in advance with a 90% success rate. But, as we wrote a couple of weeks ago, that's not all that impressive. Consider:

Lichtman's batting average is being inflated quite a bit by blowouts. He's 3-1 in elections decided by fewer than 100 EVs, which isn't bad, but flipping a quarter would get you to 2-2, on average. And he's 1-1 in elections decided by fewer than 50 EVs, which is the exact same success rate as that quarter, on average.

We do like that Lichtman's approach emphasizes the importance of governance over campaigning (though it might go a little TOO far in that direction). Beyond that, however, his declaration that Biden is (tentatively) in the catbird seat in 2024? We just don't think it means very much. (Z)

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