President Barack Obama casts his early vote alongside other voters at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Chicago Oct. 25.
As Americans go to the polls today many political scientists are equally uncertain about the turnout of the race as voters are. Today is a great test of their predictive abilities.
Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, developed the “Keys to the White House” model in 1981. It retroactively predicts every presidential election back to 1860, and has managed to predict every presidential victory up through 2008. The same 13 “Keys” that enabled Obama to beat McCain in 2008 apply to why JFK beat Nixon in 1960 and why FDR beat Hoover in 1932.
When five or fewer Keys are “false,” then the incumbent wins the White House again. If six or more are false, then the challenger will win the election.
This year 10 of the Keys are “true” and are therefore in Obama’s favor: incumbency, no primary challenger, no significant third-party challenger, the short-term economy (no current recession), major policy changes like Obamacare, no major social unrest, no major scandal, no major foreign policy failures, a major foreign policy success (killing Osama bin Laden and pulling troops out of Afghanistan) and Romney’s lack of charisma.
Only three Keys to the White House are in Romney’s favor. The first is party mandate, as Tea Party gains in the 2010 midterms continue to give Republicans momentum. The second factor is the long-term economy (measured in GDP growth), which continues to lag. The third Key in Romney’s favor, according to Lichtman, is ironically Obama’s own lack of charisma in 2012.
Keys to the White House has been criticized because it cannot quantify how strong a candidate’s victory margin will be; it can only predict in “yes” or “no” form. The model also de-emphasizes the influence of the economy, which lends to skepticism particularly in 2012, an election year that has been all about the economy.
Lichtman’s predictions contrast sharply with another respected model produced by political scientists Michael Berry and Kenneth Bickers of the University of Colorado, which suggests Romney will win the Electoral College 330 to 208. The Berry and Bickers model has also predicted every presidential election since 1980. Their studies are calibrated on a state-by-state basis and produce percentage predictions for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The model was sharp enough to predict in 2000 that Al Gore would win the popular vote while George W. Bush would win the Electoral College.
Rather than focusing on wider indicators like foreign policy and corruption, as “Keys to the White House” does, the Berry and Bickers model narrows in on economic indicators.
PS: Political Science and Politics, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Political Science Association, published analyses from 13 presidential election prediction models in August. The models were equally split. Five of the studies presented suggested Obama would retain his seat in the Oval Office, five said Romney would claim it and three said that the race was a toss-up.
Real Clear Politics averages all major national polls together and suggests that Obama brings a .2% national lead into Election Day, leading Romney 47.5% to 47.3%. Yet in the all-important Electoral College tally, Obama’s lead is more comfortable. Real Clear Politics has the president leading 290 to 248. (270 electoral votes are required to win.)
Nate Silver, the statistician who runs FiveThirtyEight, the election blog at The New York Times, gives Obama a 2.3% edge in his weighted average of the polls. According to Silver, the president leads 50.6% to 48.3%. In the Electoral College, Silver’s model gives Obama a 306.9 lead to Romney’s 231.1.
Yet, although Berry and Bickers predict Romney will win Colorado with 53.3% of the vote, most averages of recent polling at the eve of the election were not so kind to the Republican. Real Clear Politics suggests Obama is up by .6% and FiveThirtyEight has the president likely to win the toss-up state.
With the race razor close, all the bets are off.
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