The seer has spoken! Veteran campaign forecaster Allan Lichtman, who has correctly foreseen the outcome of every presidential election since 1984, confidently declared this week that the winner in 2012 will be…Barack Obama.Well. I’m glad that’s settled.But seriously. Even though political scientist Lichtman has successfully played the swami for a very long time, what he now foresees, based on the criteria he calls his “13 keys,” ain’t necessarily so. Because surely there is a human factor; surely he’s prone to at least some subjectivity. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I’d like to get paid for this work over the next 15 months.Many esteemed forecasters have plied their trade during the past quarter century – you can Google names like Ray Fair, James Campbell, Michael Lewis-Beck, and Alan Abramowitz – but Lichtman is arguably the top player in the parlor game of prognostication. And from his perch at American University, he often ticks people off. He believes that the candidates’ tactics and speeches and messages do little to shape the outcome of an election. Rather, he believes that the outcome is essentially determined by broad political and economic factors that are beyond the candidates’ control.The ticked-off people typically fall into two camps: Campaign insiders who don’t want to believe that their efforts are all for naught; and partisan voters who hate it when Lichtman anoints the candidate whom they hate. An example from the first camp is Roger Stone, a Republican strategist back in the day, who told me in 1996 that Lichtman’s beliefs were absurd (“this idea that the results are written in the stars – it’s mumbo-jumbo, a bunch of crap”). Examples from the second camp would no doubt include all the Obama-haters whose heads are now exploding at the news of Lichtman’s ’12 decree.But Lichtman is long accustomed to taking heat from both sides of partisan divide. I well recall (because I’ve spoken with him on and off for nearly 25 years) that Democrats were furious in 1988 when he predicted that, because of “historical forces,” George H. W. Bush would defeat Michael Dukakis; and Democrats were again steamed when Lichtman, nearly a year before the 2004 election, predicted that George W. Bush would be re-elected – no matter who ran against him. (As he told me in December ’03, “Increasingly, all underlying factors are lining up in Bush’s favor.”)Ah yes, those “underlying factors,” his “13 keys.” This week he turned the keys for Obama – defying much of the current conventional wisdom. Is he nuts to put his seven-for-seven streak in such jeopardy?Let’s check out the system he first developed for the ’84 election. He hasn’t changed it since. He lists 13 factors, then decides whether each factor helps or hurts the incumbent president’s party. If eight or more of the factors favor the incumbent president’s party, then the incumbent wins. If he scores seven factors or fewer, he loses. (When there’s no incumbent, the system works the same way. Lichtman predicted an ’88 win for the senior Bush because most of the factors favored lame duck Ronald Reagan’s party.)Lichtman scores 10 of 13 for Obama. He told the U.S. News & World Report website earlier this week, “Even if I am being conservative, I don’t see how Obama can lose.” So without further ado, let’s see how he reached that verdict. 1. Party mandate. After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more House seats than it did after the previous midterms. (Thumbs down, Obama. The Dems lost the House in ’10.)2. Contest. There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. (Thumbs up, Obama. This isn’t like 1980, when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter.)3. Incumbency. The incumbent party’s candidate is the sitting president. (Thumbs up.)4. Third Party. There is no significant third party challenge. (Thumbs up.)5. Short-term economy. The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. (Lichtman for some reason said he was “undecided.”)6. Long-term economy. Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. (Thumbs down. Duh.) 7. Policy change. The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.(Obama achieved some big ones, including health reform and economic stimulus. Thumbs up.)8. Social unrest. There is no sustained social unrest during the term. (No mass rioting in the streets or serious civil disturbances a la 1968. Thumbs up.)9. Scandal. The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. (Thumbs up.)10. Foreign/military failure. The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. (No Iranian hostage crisis a la 1980. Thumbs up.)11. Foreign/military success. The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. (Osama bin Laden got lit up. Thumbs up.)12. Incumbent charisma. The incumbent party’s candidate is charismatic or a national hero. (Thumbs down. Lichtman says that Obama has not leveraged his charisma to communicate effectively.)13. Challenger charisma. The challenging party’s candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. (Thumbs up. The GOP field is charismatically underwhelming.)So Obama wins, right? Perhaps. But even the most ostensibly objective criteria require subjective judgments. Take factor 7, for instance. Lichtman gives that one to Obama, seemingly on the assumption that major policy changes always benefit the incumbent. But that’s not necessarily true. Health reform and the economic stimulus were indeed major, but they’re not broadly popular. Swing voters might score those policies as negatives.And, as for factor 10, there are plenty of Americans, especially within the liberal base, who would cite Afghanistan as a failed quagmire that Obama abetted by pouring in more troops. (Although, in defense of Lichtman, you could also argue that Afghanistan is mostly a non-factor, because most Americans have simply tuned it out.)And why should factor 5 be scored as “undecided,” given the ill health of the short-term economy? Today’s federal labor report shows no net-job growth in July, the first time that has happened since February 1945.Moreover, Lichtman implies that all 13 factors are roughly equal in importance. But a case can be made that factor 6 is currently far more equal than others – given the public’s outsize economic anxieties, and the projections of high unemployment all next year. According to Lichtman’s keys, the long-term jobless rate is seemingly no more or less pivotal to the voters than the hit job on bin Laden.Fifteen years ago, shortly before Lichtman correctly predicted another winner, rival forecaster James Campbell scoffed at the 13 keys, insisting to me that it was all “hocus pocus. There is massive subjectivity, a lot of room to fudge things. How do you define ‘major’? Or ‘charismatic’?”True enough. But, as a Woody Allen character quipped in the Russian spoof Love and Death, “Subjectivity is objective!” Professionals are only human, but they are still capable of dispassionate judgment calls – just like baseball umpires who have to decide whether a slider has nicked the edge of the strike zone. Lichtman hasn’t missed a call yet. He once told me that he had to endure “screaming fights” with the Dukakis Democrats in 1988, so clearly he’s ready for the Obamaphobes. Luckily for him, 15 months will pass before they get the chance to prove him wrong.
I’m offline on Labor Day. Fire up the grill, have a good holiday. See you Tuesday.
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