Assessing Obama's Reelection Chances

Obama is in much better shape than his opponents and detractors profess to believe.

Those desperately desirous of divining the outcome of next year’s presidential election might consult a 1990 book by political scientist Allan J. Lichtman and journalist Ken DeCell—Thirteen Keys to the Presidency: Prediction Without Polls. It presents a series of questions about incumbent presidents that, when analyzed, constitute a framework for predicting presidential elections. The framework is based on the supposition that presidential elections are referendums, that they turn largely on the performance of the incumbent and not on campaign minutia such as candidate gaffes, fundraising differentials and attack ads. And bear in mind that some of the thirteen keys call for subjective answers. Hence there will be room for ongoing debate as to what they actually tell us about our current incumbent.

The keys were devised by Lichtman through a complex pattern of algorithms that apply to politics a mathematical technique called "pattern recognition," used in science for such things as predicting earthquakes. Essentially, the method seeks to illuminate the politics of today by discerning patterns of circumstance that reflect the country’s political path through history. The Lichtman/DeCell formula, as interpreted by the authors, has held up in every U.S. presidential election since 1860.

Even if the exercise isn’t definitive, it’s fun. So let’s use it as a yardstick to measure President Obama’s chances for reelection. Not all of the keys reflect performance, strictly defined. Some reflect the country’s political situation, while others focus on the kind of figure presented by the incumbent and the challenger. But performance is the most significant index. The keys are presented in the form of statements that require true or false answers. If five or fewer are false, the incumbent party wins; if six or more are false, the incumbent party goes down.

1) After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House than it did after the previous midterm elections.

2) There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.

3) The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.

4) There is no significant third-party or independent campaign.

5) The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

6) Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

7) The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

8) There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

9) The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

10) The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

11) The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

12) The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

13) The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

If this collection of statements does indeed reflect the sensibility of the electorate in presidential elections, it says something significant about how the voters’ collective judgment emerges—namely, that no single element of performance will make or break a president. Many political observers have written off Obama based on his economic performance, but that is reflected in only two of the Lichtman/DeCell keys. He can have a bad economy and still get reelected. But consider also how the keys may be intertwined. A bad economy can bring on an intraparty nomination fight, for example, or can lead to party losses in midterm elections. Or a military failure can bring on social unrest, which in turn can stimulate a third-party campaign entry. Against this backdrop, let’s look at the Obama performance against these keys.

Key 1: The answer is false. Obama’s party holds fewer House seats than it did after the previous midterm elections. This one goes against the president.

Key 2: True. There is no serious nomination fight in the president’s party.

Key 3: True. The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. This is the one key that confers a slight advantage to incumbency, but only with a sitting president representing the party.

Key 4: Unknown. There is still time for a significant third-party or independent campaign, and under the Lichtman/DeCell thesis it would almost inevitably harm the incumbent more than the challenger.

Key 5: Unknown. If the economy continues to grow through the campaign year, this key goes to Obama; if it slips into recession, it goes against him.

Key 6: False. Obama loses the key regarding real per capita economic growth during his term, which must equal or exceed mean growth during the previous two terms.

Key 7: A tough one. The key statement is: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national (domestic) policy. Certainly, the president’s health-care initiative would qualify as a major change in domestic policy. But it is also the most unpopular, even despised, piece of domestic legislation in memory. Is it possible that the Lichtman/DeCell algorithms didn’t anticipate such a development as a major legislative victory that turns sour? Also, what if the Supreme Court negates the law? Then this key would definitively turn against Obama. In the meantime, this key remains a bit of a mystery—and fodder for endless political discussion.