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The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency.

The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency

Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell. Madison Books. Lichtman and DeCell boldly claim to have the key, or rather all 13 keys, to presidential elections. It is hard to knock success, for they correctly call all 33 presidential elections from 1860 to date. The rule is simple: If no more than five keys are turned against the incumbent, the incumbent wins; If six or more are turned against the incumbent, the challenger wins. Their phenomenal success is backed up by a persuasive, detailed account of all 33 contests. The basic thesis is interesting. The book's weaknesses are that the development of the logic of the keys has a bit (not too much, but a bit) of academic defensiveness (covering their butts) to it, while the long review of each election is interesting and readable but becomes a bit stylized, since the authors have to cover each key each time. And one might quibble further. Why is six the magic number? (It happens to work, is the answer.) Why were the two most anti-incumbent elections (in 1876 and 1960 there were nine keys turned against the incumbent party) also two of the closest elections of all time? But why quibble. This is politics, where perfect is perfectly rare.

So what are the keys to victory and who controls them? Mostly the incumbent does. If the incumbent is running, if the incumbent's party is strong, if the path to nomination is unblocked and the path to election uncluttered by third parties, and if the incumbent has performed well in office on economic and foreign policy, made major policy changes, and avoided major scandal and social unrest, keys are turned in the incumbent party's favor. The only thing the challenger can do is be charismatic, but that, too, can be matched by the incumbent. Not only are these keys incumbent-centered, they are performance-centered--and they leave room neither for campaigning to matter nor for the challenger or challenging party to act.

The dominance of the incumbent and his performance is no surprise. A fourteenth key, the late V.O. Key, Jr., anticipated these keys, demonstrating the centrality of party and of performance on peace and prosperity (what he called retrospective voting) to voters and thus to elections. What is surprising about the keys, then, is not what is included but what is not.

Is there no room for issues, for ideology, for the campaign, or even for the challenger? Yes and no. Indirectly, yes. In the 1860 election, for instance, slavery appears in the keys through social turmoil, through the surge toward a Republican Congress, through divisions in the Democratic party, and through third-party candidacies. And yet often, no, not really. In 1988, for example, Lichtman and DeCell claim that Bush did not win due to a Republican "lock" on the presidency (with their keys, no party ever has a lock), due to an incompetent or too liberal Dukakis, or due to anything under the control of Democrats. Any Republican would have won, since Republicans had only three keys turned against them: the absence of an incumbent running, of major policy changes, and of charisma. Nothing else worked against Bush. Only a charismatic Democrat could have, and even that would not have been enough. Even a divided Republican party running, say, Pete DuPont would have won. To be sure, a Democratic victory was barely possible. Had, for instance, Bush won a divisive nomination, Pat Robertson bolted and made a strong third-party bid, and the Democrats nominated a charismatic candidate, they would have won, according to the keys. Jesse Jackson would now be president.

Lichtman and DeCell claim that voters make sensible, sound, political judgments. That's the good news. The bad news is that voters look backward to what has happened. They don't look forward to what could happen.
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Author:Aldrich, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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