Photo by Liz Lynch
On Election Day, Allan Lichtman sat in a studio of the Al Jazeera English network and followed the returns with both pride and dread.
A professor of history at American University, the Bethesda resident was offering viewers real-time analysis from Qatar. In front of a glowing map of swing states, Lichtman explained Hillary Clinton’s election advantages over Donald Trump.
“It doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton’s going to win,” he cautioned. “I’m not making that prediction.”
Just the opposite. For weeks, as pollsters and pundits coalesced behind Clinton, Lichtman had been calling the election for Trump. As Election Day neared, he doubled down. That night, he saw his prediction confirmed and his political predilections crushed.
“I had very mixed feelings,” says Lichtman, 69. “On the one hand, I was kind of the lone ranger out there with my prediction. Everyone thought I would be wrong. There was a certain vindication in that. But I’m a liberal Democrat, and I was very fearful for the country under a Trump administration.”
Lichtman doesn’t chase polls. He follows his own “Keys to the White House.” In 32 years his forecasting tool has failed him only once—in the 2000 race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. He called that race for Gore, who, like Clinton, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College tally. After the 2000 contest, Lichtman says he began applying his forecasting model to the Electoral College outcome rather than the popular vote.
He says his keys “predict the trend of the country, and the trend of the country is skewed by New York and California,” heavily populated Democratic powerhouses that pile on popular votes without shifting the outcome in the Electoral College.
In 2016, Lichtman saw the keys turning for Trump when nearly every other pundit expected Clinton to win. His prediction seemed crazy before the election, but it seems prophetic now.
Lichtman is a common figure on news networks during a presidential election season. He’s quick with a quote or a joke delivered with a grin and a blunt Brooklyn accent. A professor who launched a failed 2006 U.S. Senate bid and once bested 20 competitors on the game show Tic Tac Dough, Lichtman found that his against-the-grain 2016 prediction put him in the spotlight more than ever.
Eight days after the election, Lichtman sits in his office at American University, a cramped, windowless space filled floor to ceiling with books. The only picture is a black and white postcard on his desk showing Harry Truman hoisting the infamously erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Nov. 3, 1948, Chicago Daily Tribune. As he reclines in his chair, his desk phone rings. A Brazilian radio station wants an interview. Three more requests pop up on his iPhone.
“I’ve never had this kind of sustained worldwide attention,” Lichtman says. “Feature stories in The New York Times. Numerous stories in The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, BBC—you name it.”
Lichtman announced his first 2016 presidential forecast in May. He and his wife, Karyn Strickler, a like-minded political junkie who runs an environmentally focused political action coalition, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in a packed room at the Woman’s Club of Bethesda. The presidential race, Lichtman told the guests, was too close to call. Even that was a chilling notion for the liberal crowd. They wanted to hear that Clinton would be a shoo-in.
Several days later, Lichtman shared his analysis with The Fix, The Washington Post’s politics blog. “It’s looking shaky for the party in power, but the prediction is not yet set,” he told reporter Peter Stevenson.
Lichtman’s forecasting model has surprisingly little to do with candidates or campaigns. Instead, it views each election largely as a referendum on the party holding the White House. If the president is doing well in certain key areas, expect the same party to take the next election. If not, get ready for change. “Governing, not campaigning, counts in presidential elections,” Lichtman wrote in his book, Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House 2016.
His keys are 13 true-false statements meant to gauge the economy’s health, the sitting president’s success, each candidate’s appeal and other factors. If at least eight statements are true, the incumbent party stays in power. If at least six are false, hand the White House keys to the challenger.
“My system looks at the deep tides that actually drive elections,” Lichtman says. Following polls, he says, is like “trying to understand the ocean by looking at the froth on the waves.”
When he created the keys, he was thinking of earthquakes, not waves. Lichtman was teaching at the California Institute of Technology in 1981 when a fellow visiting scholar approached him about using what he knew about predicting earthquakes to call American elections.
Viewing politics not as Republican versus Democrat but as stability versus upheaval, the pair arrived at 13 factors that shaped presidential wins going back to 1860. An Associated Press writer, struck by this “odd couple” that claimed to have discovered the keys to the White House, wrote about their findings. Since then, Lichtman has been approached by an array of news networks and presidential campaigns on both sides of the divide.
In the months after declaring the 2016 race too close to call, Lichtman reviewed the keys over and over. It was his “toughest call ever,” says Strickler, 57. “Every day we would start the day by saying, ‘OK, where do the keys stand today?’ ”
It was close, she says, but the more Lichtman struggled, the more he seemed to be trying to make the keys turn for Clinton when they wanted to turn for Trump. “I said to him, ‘You have to be true to the keys,’ ” Strickler recalls. “ ‘You have to be true to the system.’ ”
In September, Lichtman again contacted Stevenson at the Post. He had his prediction. “Very, very narrowly, the keys point to a Trump victory,” he said. But Lichtman added a rare caveat. Trump was so unorthodox, he said, that maybe the keys had it wrong.
“I think he really, really would have been happy to be wrong this time,” Strickler says. “He was tortured. He had sleepless nights. He felt personally responsible.” Lichtman’s prediction went viral. He made Facebook’s trending list twice, his wife says: “He was trending above Oprah and Melania Trump.”
Lichtman has one more prediction now, based not on any carefully crafted system but on his gut: Trump’s tendency to play “fast and loose with the law” will get him impeached. “He’s unpredictable,” Lichtman says.