Climate Change and the 2016 Presidential Election: Exclusive Interview with author of The Keys to the White House

By Karyn Strickler

September, 2015


Allan Lichtman, you are a distinguished professor of history at American University and author of The Keys to the White House, a system for predicting U.S. Presidential elections, which has accurately predicted the popular vote winner of every presidential election since 1984. Tell us about The Keys.

The theory behind The Keys is that presidential elections are referenda on the party holding the White House, based on their performance during the previous four years. I developed The Keys in 1981 in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on earthquake prediction. We developed The Keys by analyzing elections from 1860 to 1980. The Keys model proves that debates, speeches, fund-raising, TV ads, and gaffes – count for little or nothing on Election Day. It’s governing that matters.

What are the Thirteen Keys and where do they stand today?

They are 13 key factors that determine whether or not the incumbent party will be re-elected. When five or fewer of the Keys are false, or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins. Here are the 13 Keys and their standing for the 2016 election, as of September 2015:

The 13 Keys to the White House & Where They Stand Today:

  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. (2016 – FALSE)
  2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. (2016 – UNDECIDED)
  3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president. (2016 – FALSE)
  4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign. (2016 – UNDECIDED)
  5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. (2016 – TRUE)
  6. Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. (2016 – TRUE)
  7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. (2016 – FALSE)
  8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term. (2016 – TRUE)
  9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. (2016 – TRUE)
  10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. (2016 – TRUE)
  11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. (2016 – UNDECIDED)
  12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. (2016 – FALSE)
  13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. (2016 – TRUE)

Can you please summarize how The Keys stand today?

I predicted the 2012 election in January 2010 and the 2008 election in February 2006. It is the undecided keys that make this election difficult to call.

Currently the incumbent Democrats have 4 keys turned against them, 2 keys short of a predicted defeat. However, 3 keys remain undecided: incumbent party Contest Key, Third Party Key, and Foreign Policy/Military Success Key. If 2 of these 3, undecided keys turn against the Democrats, they will be predicted losers next November. Otherwise they will be predicted winners.

Which Keys, that remain undecided, are related to climate change and how?

Climate change could be central to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in a way that conventional analysts have not yet grasped. If the Obama administration achieves a major international agreement, on combating climate change in Paris in December, that would secure the Foreign/Military Success Key and nearly guarantee a Democratic victory.

Bernie Sanders is currently surging in his bid for the Democratic nomination. What happens to The Keys if Bernie Sanders is nominated?

A Sanders nomination would be bad news for Democrats, politically. Sanders would likely win the party’s nomination only after a serious contest with Hilary Clinton. That would turn a 5th key against the incumbent Democrats, leaving the party one key short of defeat. If there is a serious contest and President Obama does not achieve a major foreign policy success, the Republican nominee would win the November election.

Does electing Donald Trump in the Republican Primary impact The Keys?

Donald Trump appeals to a limited segment of the electorate. But he is no Ronald Reagan with across-the-board appeal. Thus, his nomination would not turn a key and would not impact the outcome of the election.

What are the implications for U.S. Presidential election of the upcoming UNFCC climate talks in Paris in December 2015?

In addition to the Foreign/Military Success Key, one of The Keys is achievement of major policy change by the incumbent administration. Securing an international treaty that also requires major, domestic policy change on the climate issue, could potentially turn 2 keys in favor of the Democrats. In that case, Democrats would be down only 3 keys, instead of 4 keys and counting.

Please sum up the issue of climate change in 2016 as it relates The Keys to the White House.

The issue of climate change could determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. If the administration could achieve a major, international breakthrough on climate change in Paris, it would virtually secure a victory for those who favor action on climate change in the fall Presidential campaign, especially if it results in major, domestic policy change and there is no incumbent party contest.

Karyn Strickler is the founder & president of Vote Climate U.S. PAC. Allan Lichtman is a distinguished professor of history at American University, Washington, DC and author of “The Keys to the White House.” He is Karyn’s husband.