Since he began tracking US elections in 1980, Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, has gained the admiration of his peers for correctly predicting every presidential race since 1984. He does it not with the kind of “big data” analysis that has made media stars out of the likes of Nate Silver. Rather, he uses a relatively simple, 13-point system – derived, believe it or not, from the same inexact science that predicts earthquakes. And according to his system (which is outlined in his book Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House), the election has long belonged to Donald Trump. With three days left to Decision 2016, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Prof. Lichtman to see if he was standing by his results. If you’re expecting a gleeful prophet of doom, think again. As this conversation will make abundantly clear, no one is unhappier about his findings than Lichtman himself.
How did you come up with this system?
I’d love to tell you I did it by a lot of brilliant thinking, but I did it by accident. In 1981, I was a visiting scholar at CalTech and I came across another visiting scholar – a renowned mathematician and world’s leading authority of earthquake predictions from Moscow. He suggested we use the methods of earthquake prediction to predict elections.
I was very skeptical. So I started to think about it: Everything we know about elections is stolen from geophysics anyway, right? “Landslides.” “Political earthquakes.” “Volcanic change.” And so we conceptualized elections in geophysical terms. As stability, the party in power keeps the White House. Earthquake, the party in power is tossed out.
We looked at the political environment, elections from 1860 to 1980, guided by the thesis the presidential elections are primarily judgments on the strength and performance of the party heading the White House. That’s how we divide the 13 key factors. Then we arrived at the decision rule that 6 or more keys going against the party in power predicts their defeat. And that system has correctly forecast every American presidential election since then. Eight in a row, from 1984 to 2012.
And the keys are saying Trump will win! How, uh, sure are we about that?
I’m not confident at all. I’m not a hedger. I have never hedged a prediction. I have stuck by predictions contrary to the polls and pundits many times in the past. I predicted a George H. W. Bush victory in May of 1998 when he was trailing Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and every pundit had written him off. I predicted the very-hard-to-call 2012 election back in 2010, and stuck with my prediction even after Obama’s disastrous first debate the polls turned against him.
But for the first time I have qualified my prediction. My prediction is based on history and for the first time in Donald Trump we have a history-smashing candidate: We never had a candidate before who has no record in public service; a record of enriching himself throughout his life at the expense of others, whether through bankruptcies, his Trump Foundation or Trump University; we’ve never had a candidate who has called into question the integrity of democracy and threatened not to accept the result of the election; we’ve never had a candidate who openly brags about sexually assaulting women and then 12 women come forward saying he did that. Back in 2012, a guy named Herman Cain was the favorite for the Republican nomination. Then three or four women accused him of sexual harassment and he was driven out the of the race. Unlike Cain, Trump brags about sexual harassing women.
And so you have two contending forces here: The force of history, that it should be a change election, in which a generic Republican should win – if it was John Kasich or Jeb Bush it would be no question. But you have Trump, a candidate so far out of the box he may be capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Then you have so many other things that are troubling and unprecedented in this election. You have the Russians meddling in this election. We’ve never before had a foreign power blatantly interfering to help elect their preferred candidate. You have the FBI, not just once but twice releasing damaging material just weeks before an election. So this election keeps me sleepless at night I have to say.
Is it perhaps time to revise your trusted 13-key system?
Well, here’s the big question: Is this election an anomaly, that we’re not going to see again? Or are we seeing a permanent and I think very negative change in our politics: when it’s OK to assault women; when it’s OK to be endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan; when it is OK to demean democracy; when it is OK for foreign powers to intervene blatantly in our election. When things are so polarized that neither side is likely to accept the legitimacy of the other side. I don’t mean just being opposed to it. I mean saying, “This is not acceptable.”
One of the keys refers to the candidates’ charisma. But that has to be somewhat subjective, no?
You’re dealing in human systems. So, yes, some of the keys involved judgment, but the judgments are pretty constrained. And they’ve been answered retrospectively. Quite clearly, Hillary Clinton, as I define it, is not the once-in-a-generation inspirational candidate like Ronald Reagan or FDR. Now, you may think Trump is charismatic – but he is only charismatic to a slice of the electorate.
Unlike say a Ronald Reagan who had broad appeal, who brought out a lot of Reagan Democrats, Trump does not fulfill. You can’t call a candidate charismatic of whom 60 percent of Americans do not view as fit to be president.
But then to what do you ascribe this Teflon quality he has? There’s no depths to which he can seemingly go and the polls barely move.
Regardless of his reprehensible personal characteristics, there are many Americans who say I am going to overlook that and vote for change. A generic Republican would be a much easier prediction. The other thing about Donald Trump and these negative characteristics that people seem to be overlooking is you have two entities, and on the other side pumping out all kinds of negative information about Hillary Clinton.
50,000 leaked docs, traced to Russians, on the Democratic side. Republican side? Zero. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out which side the Russians are on. The media has swallowed hook, line and sinker on WikiLeaks. Marco Rubio, to his credit, said it right: No one should be using WikiLeaks because it sets a horrible precedent for US elections. Yet the media goes on and on and on. Can you imagine if we had leaked emails from Paul Mannafort or Roger Stone of Stephen Bannon?
The second thing of course is [FBI Director] James Comey. He has unbelievably broken precedent after precedent to intervene in this election on the side of Donald Trump. The first thing was when he found that Hillary Clinton hadn’t done anything to recommend prosecution he should have kept his big mouth shut. He had no business opining and editorializing the fact the she was very careless in her use of emails. Imagine you are being investigated about your business by the FBI about your financial transactions. The FBI found you hadn’t done anything illegal, but the director went out on his own volition to say you had been extremely careless in your financial transactions. It would have wrecked your business. And that’s just what Comey did. Then, much worse, 11 days before the election, he drops this bombshell of these emails. He’s no political novice. He knew it would be a huge bombshell. It was an immense benefit to Donald Trump. It’s showing up in the polls. And it contained no information. It served no public purpose except to cover himself. “Apparently pertinent.” “May not be significant.” So you have these two entities, the FBI, whose integrity has been shredded, and the Russians on the other side. James Comey should resign today.
What do you tell your concerned family members and friends?
I tell them I’m very fearful about our democracy. I’m almost 70 years old and it doesn’t matter that much to me – but it matters so much for my kids what’s become of our democracy. The FBI becoming a political player. Unbelievable. The Russians with impunity influencing our elections. Will it now be open-season for any foreign power that has a favorite candidate to jump in and interfere in our elections? I worry about claims that our democracy is rigged. That our elections aren’t legitimate. I worry that the worse elements of our society have been stirred up. Ku Klux Klan newspaper just endorsed Donald Trump. Can you imagine the Ku Klux Klan endorsing a major-party candidate? Every anti-Semitic group, neo-Nazi, White Supremacist group has been encouraged by this election to think their time has come. I’m Jewish. And I know this is how it starts. And it worries me to the marrow of my being. And I study these issues. I wrote a book about FDR and the Jews. This is how these things begin. I encourage everyone to read Sinclair Lewis’ book, It Can’t Happen Here. It can happen here.
So with 3 days left to the election, you’re standing by your system. You predict a Trump win.
We’ll see. On the one hand I’ll be the biggest genius in the world. On the other hand, I’ll be the most depressed person in the world.