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Obama's Keys to the White House

Authors: Allan Lichtman, and Anya Schmemann, Director of the Independent Task Force Program
August 30, 2012


Allan J. Lichtman is distinguished professor in the department of History at American University and author of The Keys to the White House. Anya Schmemann is director of Editorial Strategy in the Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Foreign policy doesn't matter. "It's the economy, stupid." That's the conventional wisdom, anyway.

The pundits say that we haven't heard much about international issues in this campaign because the economic crisis is the most important issue on voters' minds. But the lack of foreign policy attention might not be for lack of interest. It is more likely a case of strategic avoidance.

Historically, U.S. presidential campaigns have focused on domestic issues. With a few exceptions (in 2004, for example, when Americans were worried about terrorism and the war in Iraq) national security has largely taken a back seat to domestic concerns.

With President Obama earning consistently high marks for his handling of national security, it is no surprise that the Republicans are avoiding the topic. And while the public may hear more about international issues at the upcoming Democratic convention, the Democrats are satisfied with their current unprecedented national security scores and don't want to mess with a good thing.

Indeed, the strong foreign policy approval rating held by Obama and the Democrats should give Republicans reason to worry.

Research shows that Americans choose their president largely according to the performance of the party holding the White House. If the nation fares well during the term of the incumbent party, that party generally wins another four years in office; otherwise, the challenging party prevails.

More precisely, thirteen conditions, or "keys," that gauge the performance of the incumbent hold clues for this year's election's outcome (as seen here). When five or fewer keys are false, the incumbent party candidate wins. When six or more are false, the other party candidate wins. Currently, with only three false keys, Obama is a predicted winner this November.

Two of the thirteen keys ask whether the president has achieved a foreign or military success and avoided a major disaster abroad. The Obama administration had an unmitigated triumph with the killing of Osama bin Laden. It also avoided such serious setbacks as losing a war. It has thus secured two of the keys needed for victory. Without these two keys in his favor Obama would face five false keys, just one short of a predicted defeat. So what is unsaid in the campaign may be as important as what is said.

The president gets strong job approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy and national security in various polls. A recent Washington Post poll says 48 percent trust Obama over Romney (37 percent) to do a better job handling international affairs. A recent Gallup poll shows that Obama gets continued strong marks for his handling of terrorism (58 percent) and fair marks for foreign affairs (48 percent). And a Fox News poll conducted earlier this month notes that while only 30 percent of registered voters call foreign policy "extremely important" to their vote, 51 percent say they trust the president to do a better job handling foreign policy compared to 28 percent who trust Romney more.

But even though Americans may not give as much weight to foreign policy as domestic issues in their voting calculations, the key system shows that with many of the other keys already in his pocket, Obama's foreign policy achievements may give him the keys that clinch the outcome. No wonder the GOP is not talking about foreign policy.

The Keys to the White House in 2012

  • Key 1: Party mandate. After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections. (False)
  • Key 2: Contest. There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination. (True)
  • Key 3 Incumbency. The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president. (True)
  • Key 4: Third party. There is no significant third-party or independent campaign. (True)
  • Key 5: Short-term economy. The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. (True)
  • Key 6: Long-term economy. Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. (False)
  • Key 7: Policy change. The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. (True)
  • Key 8: Social unrest. There is no sustained social unrest during the term. (True)
  • Key 9: Scandal. The administration is untainted by major scandal. (True)
  • Key 10: Foreign/military failure. The administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. (True)
  • Key 11: Foreign/military success. The administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. (True)
  • Key 12: Incumbent charisma. The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. (False)
  • Key 13: Challenger charisma: The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. (True)

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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