What Kerry Must Do to Win (But Probably Won’t)


Politics as usual will not suffice for John Kerry in his speech to the Democratic Convention. Kerry can hope to shorten the long odds he faces against President Bush only with a bold, imaginative approach to winning the election.

This challenging conclusion for Kerry comes from the Keys to the White House, a prediction system we developed in 1981 by applying the mathematics of pattern recognition to the outcomes of every presidential election since 1860. We subsequently used the Keys to predict correctly, well ahead of time, the popular vote results of presidential elections from 1984 to 2000.

The theory behind the keys is that presidential elections are primarily referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House, as voters respond not to daily spin control but to the consequential events of a presidential term. The keys are thirteen diagnostic questions, phrased as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer are false, the party in power wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

President Bush now has four keys turned against him, two short of the fatal six negative keys. The following nine keys currently favor Bush.

*By gaining seats in the U.S. House elections of 2002, Republicans locked in the party mandate key.

*The lack a nomination contest gives Bush the incumbent party contest key.

*Bush’s nomination locks up the incumbent president key.

*The absence of a third-party challenger with prospects of winning 5 percent of the vote secures the third-party key.

*The recovering economy gains the short-term economy key.

*The absence of sustained, violent upheavals avoids loss of the social unrest key.

*The president’s response to the September 11 attack including the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the capture of Saddam Hussein secures the foreign/military success key.

*The lack of a major scandal implicating the president averts loss of the scandal key. *Kerry is no John F. Kennedy, keeping Republicans from losing the challenger charisma key.

The following four keys fall against Bush.

*The weak economy during the full Bush term forfeits the long-term economy key.

*The administration’s relatively modest domestic accomplishments topple the policy-change key.

*The most devastating foreign attack on the United States in history costs Bush the foreign/military failure key.

*Bush lacks the charisma of a Ronald Reagan, losing the incumbent charisma key.

Keys could change before November. The economy could tumble into a double-dip recession, one of several potential scandals could afflict the president, and events in Iraq and Afghanistan could negate his successes abroad. Kerry could lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College tally, which Bush accomplished in 2000 for the first time since 1888. Although Kerry cannot depend on such unlikely turns of fortune, he can help himself by trying to scramble the historical odds.

Nothing changes from one election to the next in America, because the media, the candidates, the pollsters, and the consultants are codependent in the false idea that elections are exercises in manipulating voters, and in giving us negative campaigns, bland and scripted lines. Kerry has a chance to break this cycle by firing the hucksters, tearing up their scripts, and speaking forthrightly and concretely about what Americans should be accomplishing during the next four years.

Kerry, who loves policy challenges, should lead a debate on critical neglected issues. He could, for example, respond to the worldwide scientific consensus on the perils of global warming by exploring how we can shift away from fossil fuels toward clean, renewable energy. He could even explain how fossil fuel dependence warps our foreign policies and our war against terrorism. Imagine such a discussion in a presidential campaign.

Why not break precedent and set up a shadow government, with a suggested CIA Director and Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, and Interior. Tell us how this shadow administration would government differently from the Bush administration. Submit an alternative budget and drafts of international agreements and major legislation; let the shadow officials campaign for the Kerry and his policies.

Kerry has a choice between following the usual meaningless routine in the hope that setbacks to the administration and the country will elect him in November or take a chance on running a new kind of daring, innovative, and programmatic campaign. With the right choice, Kerry can achieve an historical breakthrough that would establish the basis for a principled choice of our national leader and a grassroots mobilization on issues that matter to America’s future.

Allan J. Lichtman is Professor of History at American University in Washington DC. Vladimir Keilis-Borok is Professor in Residence at UCLA’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

Lichtman can be reached: lichtman@american.edu

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