Jefferson Society hosts Allan Lichtman for talk on polls, electability and voting rights

Political historian Allan Lichtman spoke as part of the Jefferson Society’s Distinguished Speaker Series.


The Jefferson Society's Distinguished Speaker Series intends to provide a space for a diverse array of voices from many disciplines.

Navya Annapareddy | Cavalier Daily

The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society hosted Allan Lichtman, political historian and history professor at American University Friday evening in Hotel C., Jefferson Hall West Range as the first speaker in its 2019 Distinguished Speaker Series. About 40 people were in attendance at the event. 

According to Madison Roberts, Batten student and vice president of the Jefferson Society, the Distinguished Speaker Series intends to provide a space for a diverse array of voices from many disciplines. Roberts said the Jefferson Society aims to promote “free and open discourse” and “have all voices be heard” through their speaker series. 

“We do have a lot of people in this society that are very politically attuned or are political majors or interested in politics in general,” said Roberts. “And we just thought he was just a really esteemed, interesting voice to have in the field.” 

Allan Lichtman rose to fame after publishing the book, “The Keys to the White House” in 1996. The “keys” include party mandate, contest, incumbency, third party presence, short and long term economy, policy change, social unrest, scandal, foreign/military failure and success, incumbent charisma and challenger charisma. 

The book, which Lichtman throughout the event jokingly reminded his audience to “buy for their parents,” sets out the principles of the “keys” system — a model that uses correlations from presidential election results from 1860 through 1980 to predict which party will win the popular vote in the election for President of the United States. 

Lichtman has provided commentary for all major television and radio networks — such as NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, NPR and BBC — and has also authored or co-authored 10 books, including most recently “The Case for Impeachment” and “The Embattled Vote in America.” 

Lichtman’s system has successfully predicted the outcome of every presidential election from 1984 to 2016. 

At the event, Lichtman began his lecture with a condemnation of the polls and said people mistakenly assume they are predictive of the actual outcome but are only snapshots in a given moment in time, involve a lot of guesswork and do not reflect voters because polls poll likely voters. 

Lichtman said the key to successful predicting “is to put aside your own personal perspective, which sounds easy but really takes years and years to get there.”

According to Lichtman, news “pundits” on television don’t know how elections really work. 

“You might as well have me up there talking about nuclear physics. I don’t know a thing about nuclear physics,” Lichtman said. “But, I can talk about it. I took some sardonic pleasure on election day watching the pundits twist themselves into pretzels, trying to explain to everybody why something happened that they had all assured us could not possibly happen.”

Outside of discouraging his audience from trusting the polls, Lichtman lectured about the history of voting in America — mostly on the history of voter suppression — and advocated his audience to vote for who they believe in. Lichtman’s claims drew on his 50 years of experience within politics.

To illustrate the legacy of voter suppression of minorities in the South, Lichtman gave an anecdote about his trip to Selma, Alabama in the 1980s. Lichtman came to Selma as part of the Justice Department’s suit against the State of Alabama, which had never elected a single African American to their governing bodies. 

Lichtman described Selma as a city that hadn’t changed since the 1840s — in the black areas, there weren’t even paved roads, and, in the white areas, black people were sweeping the streets and waiting the tables. 

In Selma, Lichtman came head to head with Judge Hand — an old segregationist judge — who was infamous for outlawing all the textbooks in the state of Alabama because they promoted secular humanism. 

Another highlight of Lichtman’s career was getting a call from Bill Clinton’s secretary in 1991, after Lichtman predicted that President George W. Bush —  whose approval rating was about 90 percent that year —  would be defeated in the 1992 Presidential Election.

At the end of the hour, Lichtman took questions for 30 minutes. Some questions included whether or not voters should vote for parties outside of the dividing two-party system, how candidates should run if electability is arbitrary and campaigns don’t matter, and what Lichtman’s prediction was for the 2020 presidential election. 

While Lichtman wouldn’t reveal his exact 2020 prediction, he did offer insight into the other two questions. Lichtman said that voters should always vote for who they believe in and that it is difficult for smaller parties — outside of the two-party system —  to get voters because today’s campaigns require millions, or even billions, of dollars in funding. Lichtman said that if someone is on the short end of what he calls the “keys”, they have to do something different and change the pattern. If they’re on the long end and have the keys in their favor, they should create a mandate. 

Matthew Diasio, Materials Science and Engineering PhD candidate, and Anna Pozamantir, first-year College student reflected on the event. 

Diasio found Lichtman’s talk especially interesting because of its explanation of the election process and its emphasis on voting rights. 

“I thought that it was both interesting hearing him describe both the keys of electability … and I also thought it was really interesting hearing him talk about the importance of voting rights, which I feel you don’t often hear, like, pundits linking those things together,” Diasio said. “I think he had a really novel perspective to bring. I also really appreciated his openness to so many questions.” 

Pozamantir described his approach as “articulate and calculated” and thought “it was very interesting having him walk us through his process.”

“What was interesting about him that stood out to me, more so than other experts, was the way he seemed so self-assured and confident, which may not necessarily be a bad thing because he has had so many decades of experience, but it stood out as something I don’t normally see around experts,” Pozamantir said. “I feel like I had access to a world which I didn’t necessarily have access to before because he is someone who has spoken to people such as Bill Clinton….it made me think about what it means to have a career in politics and to understand politics.” 

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