The Keys to Donald Trump’s Win BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.





No one expected a Trump victory. All the well-meaning poll-watchers, politicians, press and pundits told us that Clinton was going to win big.  Going into election day even Clinton appeared confident that she had the election all but clinched. In fact, she was so buoyant that her last few weeks included political rallies in support of Congressional candidates, rather than herself.


Yet, there was one person who correctly predicted Trump’s win. He isn’t a pollster and he isn’t a politician. In fact, he wasn’t even a Trump supporter.  Alan Lichtman, Professor of Political Science at American University, predicted Trump’s victory in September, 2016 based upon a mathematical heuristic that has proven effective in calling Presidential races for more than 3 decades. Lichtman argues that, “Presidential elections do not work the way most people think they do.” A brief examination of his metric is instructive not only to better understand why Trump won, but also to help determine what might make Trump a 2-term or merely a 1-term President.


On television and in the press, pundits are now expounding putative theories to explain the surprise upset of what seemed like an inevitable victory by Hillary Clinton. Blame is being placed on FBI Director Comey, Anthony Weiner, Bernie Sanders, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Donna Brazille, Misogynists, uneducated white men, racists and even Russian hackers. Inept Pollsters, unmotivated voters, and a ratings-hungry media are also taking heat. Coming from people who were so certain that Trump was headed to defeat, this political exegesis is less accurate than the superficial introspections of a below average Monday-morning quarterback. That is why Lichtman’s apolitical calculation is so compelling.



In 1981, Lichtman studied the factors that had been determinative in the previous 120 years of Presidential elections. He found that the outcomes of those elections were not determined by campaign money, debates, or campaign strategies, but were merely a referendum on the incumbent party’s successes and failures in governance from the White House. That is, when the incumbent party was successful they were re-elected. But when they failed, they were ousted.


By analyzing what drives the public opinion in these referenda he found that 13 Key questions could be used to predict whether the incumbent party would win or lose. Using this methodology, Lichtman has prospectively predicted the outcomes of every election since 1981 with 100% accuracy. That’s a pretty impressive track record.


The 13 true-false diagnostic questions posed by Lichtman in his algorithm, and outlined in his 1996 book, The Keys to the White House permit an analysis of whether the electorate is happy with the incumbent party. When six or more of the answers are “false”, the incumbent party will lose the Presidential election.  Here are the questions (called Keys):


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


In September, Lichtman determined that 6 of the questions were “false” with regards to the Clinton and the Democrats and he went public with his prediction that Trump was going to win (see: Interestingly, Lichtman was personally appalled by Trump’s rhetoric and even questioned whether his own algorithm might lack credibility with such a wacky outsider. He should have been more confident.


The remarkable implication of Lichtman’s theory is that the speeches, platforms, slogans and debates don’t really matter. The billions of dollars spent on advertising doesn’t matter. Consider that Trump’s election really proves Lichtman’s case: in comparison with the Democrats he spent a small amount of money. Trump’s speeches and comments were incendiary. For so many people his xenophobia, misogyny and dissembling narcissism were unparalleled and intolerable. And yet, it didn’t matter.


Many people think that because Trump was an outsider who eschewed political correctness he won the support of the common man. Others believe that people were drawn to the idea that a wealthy businessman would bring a new approach to the White House. But Lichtman would argue that nothing a candidate says during a campaign matters. And the fact that a crude, bombastic vulgarian could win virtually proves this thesis.


Some may argue that Lichtman’s theory failed because Hillary actually won the popular vote. However, his metric is based upon the electoral college system, not the popular vote. That is, his metric is empiric and not theoretic. For example, in 2000 the Keys slightly favored Gore by one point. However, in Florida the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader was relatively popular, causing Gore to lose a critical point, thus insuring his loss in the electoral college. This is the way America actually works.


Trump has already alluded to running for a second term. So, it is reasonable to look to Lichtman’s Keys to predict what he needs to do in order to have a successful first term. Going forward he is likely to remain a charismatic candidate capable of defeating any challengers within his party (giving him 2 Keys). But, he will need to do more than this.


First, he needs to make sure that the Republicans gain seats in 2018. Although the entire House is up for re-election, only about a third of the Senate will be on the ballot, and most of these races will be for seats currently held by Democrats. Trump will need to work with, rather than against, Republican legislators, in order to pick up seats.


Second, Trump needs to make certain that the economy not only avoids a recession but also shows increased growth. Blocking free trade or raising tariffs could cripple this goal. A pro-growth economic program would ensure 2 more of the keys.


Third, Trump needs major legislative successes. Whether he replaces Obamacare or revises the tax code, a big reform will be a major accomplishment that will be remembered. Fourth, Trump needs to avoid financial and legal scandals. He will need a White House team that supports and defends his policies with loyalty and secrecy. If leaks pervade his administration or if laws are broken, the media will not relent in their attacks. If he succeeds in these 2 goals he will have 6 Keys.


Finally, Trump needs a big win in foreign policy. This could be an opportunity for him to revise the Iranian deal or disarm North Korea, or create a peace deal for Israel. But, he will also need to avoid a foreign policy disasters, such as losing more democratic countries to Russian hegemony. Success in these 2 final categories would all but guarantee re-election.


If Trump winds up with a charismatic opponent, he might lose a Key point. And, in retrospect, if Hillary had chosen Sanders as her VP perhaps she might have been able to absorb enough of his charisma to have won. However, if Trump were able to score enough Keys, it won’t matter who his opponent might be in 2020. But if he fails, the Democrats will retake the White House.


One can already sense that potential Democrat candidates will start making trips to New Hampshire and Iowa within the next year. It wasn’t surprising that Andrew Cuomo responded to the Trump victory with a lengthy letter to New Yorkers assuring his dedication to the Democratic platform and touting his record in New York. He is likely already planning to make a run for the high office that his father had come so close to seeking.


As unpalatable as it might seem, the political class will turn quickly to thoughts of the mid-term election and the next Presidential Contest. We can expect a long season of punditry, endless fundraisers and countless polls.  But none of this will really matter because Alan Lichtman will likely be able to tell us who the winner will be without even knowing the names of the candidates.



Rest in Peace Ms. Reno.


-Jeffrey Oppenheim is a neurosurgeon and the former Mayor of Montebello, New York.




Keilis-Borok, V. I. & Lichtman, A. J. (1981). “Pattern Recognition Applied to Presidential Elections in the United States, 1860-1980: The Role of Integral Social, Economic, and Political Traits” (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences78(11): 7230–7234. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.11.7230.