Magazine News Volume 69, Issue 7

Coronavirus Turns a Key

During the 2016 presidential United States election, analysts near-unanimously predicted that Hillary Clinton would become the 45th President of the United States. On the eve of the presidential election, analyst Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state’s results in the 2012 presidential election, gave Clinton a two-thirds chance of winning; the New York Times gave Clinton an 85% chance of winning; PollyVote, an academic predictor whose predictions of all three previous presidential elections were virtually identical to the actual results, also predicted that Clinton would win.

Standing alone amidst this tide was American University historian Allan Lichtman – himself a Trump critic – in September 2016 stated that “very, very narrowly, [his prediction model points] to a Trump victory,” a prediction which, unlike others’, proved correct, as they had in every election since Lichtman began the model in 1984, excepting 2000, an election that various irregularities and controversies marred and an election where Lichtman’s prediction proved correct with respect to the popular vote.

Unlike other models, Lichtman’s model, the Keys to the White House, does not rely on election polling (except to determine a third-party campaign’s strength), a candidate’s qualities (beyond their capacity to possess extreme charisma), approval ratings, debate performances, media coverage, fundraising, or other traditional barometers of campaign success; instead, Lichtman’s model relies on 13 factors called “keys,” 10 of which are only related to the country’s state during the previous President’s term.

In February 2020, Lichtman stated that the election is so far “too close to call,” with numerous, potentially critical Keys being unknown at this time. One of these Keys, Key #5, is the economy’s state during the campaign: whether or not “The economy is… in recession during the election campaign.”

Until recently, all factors indicated that this Key would favor Donald Trump’s reelection, with the economy exhibiting continuous economic growth throughout the first three years of the Trump Administration, continuing a trend of continuous economic expansion throughout the Obama Administration. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Trump has campaigned on the economy, with journalist Alex Seitz-Wald noting that “[t]he president never misses an opportunity to boast about the Dow or the latest jobs report.”

Until coronavirus. Restrictions on economic activity that were taken to combat the disease have led to stock markets plunging, while unemployment claims have sharply increased in the past few weeks, with one economist for a major financial institution writing that “[t]he U.S. economy has entered [a] recession.” It is a token of conventional wisdom that the economy’s state on election day greatly affects, either positively or negatively, the President’s electoral performance. Donald Trump may have counted on the economy to aid his chances of reelection, but what was perhaps his greatest asset has now become a tremendous weakness.