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The Keys to the White House

This article was published by TomPaine.com in 1999.

Forget the polls and the pundits. Political conditions now favor the victory of Vice President Al Gore over Texas Governor George W. Bush or any other Republican nominee for president in 2000. However, Democrats could still forfeit the election by worrying about meaningless polls and waging the kind of bloody nomination struggle that invariably has foretold defeat for Democrats seeking to retain the White House.

That is the verdict of the Keys to the White House, a prediction system based on a study of every U.S. presidential election since 1860. The choice of a president, history shows, does not turn on debates, advertising, speeches, endorsements, rallies, platforms, promises, or anything that is said or done during a campaign. Rather, presidential elections are referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House.

The Keys predicted well ahead of time the winners of every presidential election from 1984 through 1996. They called Vice President George Bush's victory in the spring of 1988 when he trailed Mike Dukakis by about the same margin that Gore now lags behind the younger Bush. The Vice President defied the polls in 1988, not because he suddenly discovered negative ads, but because voters ratified the performance of the Reagan administration.

Next year, the Democratic candidate for president will win or lose on the record of the Clinton administration. No party has ever retained the White House by running away from its incumbent president.

The Keys predict election results by assessing the performance and strength of the party holding the White House. There are thirteen of them. They take into account all the factors that decide elections from the obvious (how the economy is doing) to the more subtle (whether the party in power has achieved major policy change). If eight or more of the keys favor the candidate of the incumbent party, he wins. Any fewer, he loses. Currently, these seven keys favor the Democratic party.

  • Victories in U.S. House elections of 1996 and 1998 secures the party mandate key.
  • Unless an unexpectedly strong insurgent candidate emerges -- who does not represent a split in the GOP -- the incumbent Democrats will hold the third-party key.
  • Unless the robust economy collapses, Democrats will win the long-term key (growth during the term matches growth during the past two terms) and the election-year economy key.
  • In the absence of sustained, violent upheavals like those of the 1960s, the incumbent party retains the social unrest key.
  • The war in Yugoslavia averts loss of the foreign/military failure key.
  • Despite leading the Republican field, George W. Bush doesn't match the charisma of Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, keeping Democrats from losing the challenger charisma/hero key.
The following five keys fall against the Democrats:
  • They lose the incumbent candidate key, with President Clinton ineligible to run again.
  • The stalemate between Clinton and the Republican Congress topples the policy-change key, which the incumbents win only through historic changes like the New Deal or the Reagan Revolution.
  • The Lewinsky fiasco costs Democrats the scandal key.
  • Despite escaping humiliation in Yugoslavia, the administration still lacks the grand triumph needed to earn the foreign/military success key.
  • Neither Al Gore nor former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley has the magic to win the incumbent charisma/hero key.
Thus, the outcome of election 2000 turns on the thirteenth key. This is the still undecided incumbent party contest key, which falls unless the nominee of the incumbent party controls at least two-thirds of Convention delegates. Since 1860, this key has been the best single predictor of victory or defeat for incumbent Democratic administrations.

In seven of eight elections in which incumbent Democrats won the contest key, they kept control of the White House. The only exception came in 1888 when President Grover Cleveland captured the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College.

By contrast, all six times that the incumbent Democrats lost this key, they lost the White House as well. In 1860, pro-slavery southern states bolted the party and Democrats held two conventions before nominating Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who lost to Abraham Lincoln.

In 1896, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan won a fifth ballot nomination after his stirring"Cross of Gold" Convention speech. But he couldn't overcome the burden of the"Democratic depression" of the 1890s and lost to William McKinley.

In 1920, after Woodrow Wilson's two terms, Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox after forty-four ballots. Cox lost to Warren Harding in the worst beating ever suffered by an incumbent party candidate. In 1952, party pros rejected the rank-and-file favorite, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, and gave a third-ballot nomination to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who lost to war hero Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1968, the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy splintered the Democratic party. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, nominated in the divisive Chicago Convention, lost a close contest to Richard Nixon. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter withstood a challenge from his left by Senator Edward Kennedy, but lost badly to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.

Barring surprises such as an economic collapse on the negative side or major policy change on the positive side, Democrats will win in 2000 if and only if they unite around a single presidential candidate. Otherwise, Republicans will win the presidency, likely retain both houses of Congress, and make several Supreme Court appointments, thereby controlling all branches of national government for the first time since the 1920s.