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Why Joe Biden Should Stay in the Race

Election predictor says Democrats' prospects would worsen if incumbent stepped aside 

President Joe Biden’s performance during the June 27 debate with former President Donald Trump inspired panic among some supporters. In its wake, some have called for Biden to bow out of the 2024 election in favor either of Vice President Kamala Harris or a range of the party’s rising stars including swing-state governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania.  

Allan Lichtman standing at podium with American flag in the background
American University Professor Allan Lichtman, PhD ’73
Wiki Commons

Not so fast says American University Professor Allan Lichtman, PhD ’73. Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the results of 9 of the last 10 presidential elections using a system he developed in 1981 with mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok, says that Democrats’ prospects for victory in November would be far worse if Biden stepped aside. In this conversation with Havard Griffin GSAS Communications, he asserts that it would be a “huge mistake” to forfeit the electoral advantages of incumbency and of having a candidate who has had no serious challenges from within his own party.  

This interview has been edited for clarity, correctness, and length. 

Before we get to your model, do you have concerns about Biden’s ability to campaign effectively and to handle the presidency at his age? 

Sure I have some concerns, but not about his ability to campaign effectively. He had some excellent, energetic events after the debate. He delivered one of the great State of the Union addresses just a few months ago when he was able to ad-lib and respond to the audience. It was a bravura performance. 

Even so . . . 

Look, I'm not a neurologist—and neither are the critics going after Joe Biden. They have no basis to offer an opinion on Biden’s cognitive capacities. Beyond that, what all these folks share in common is that none of them have a track record in predicting elections, and yet they claim to know what the Democrats must do to win. 

Let me read you a couple of headlines: “Debate Debacle,” “Great Concern at Democratic Headquarters.” Those aren’t headlines from after last Thursday’s debate; those are from after Barack Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate of 2012. Afterward, a CNN poll showed that 72 percent of viewers thought Obama lost, which was worse than the 67 percent who thought Biden lost last Thursday. And, of course, Obama went on to win an electoral college landslide, 332 to 206. On the other hand, when Hillary Clinton won all three debates in 2016—and then again after the Access Hollywood tape—the pundits said Trump was finished. Now they’re telling us Biden’s finished after one debate. It's nonsense. 

How many times in the last 120 years has the party holding the White House prevailed in the elections where the incumbent didn’t run? Never. 
—Allan Lichtman 

You mentioned having a track record in predicting presidential elections. You’ve correctly predicted nine of the last ten using a system of 13 key factors: party mandate, contest, incumbency, serious third-party campaign, short-term economy, long-term economy, policy change, social unrest, scandal, foreign/military failure, foreign/military success, incumbent charisma, and challenger charisma. If 8 of the 13 are favorable to the incumbent, they win. If less than eight are favorable, they lose. So why does the model lead you to argue that Biden should stay in the race? 

The keys gauge the strength and performance of the White House party. That is, they're premised on the finding that American presidential elections are votes up or down on the strength and performance of the party in power. 

Biden checks off two keys; obviously, he’s an incumbent and his path to the nomination was uncontested. That means that 6 of the remaining 11 keys would have to be negative in order to predict the Democrats’ defeat. If Biden gets bumped, the Democrats lose the incumbency key and the party contest key because there's no heir apparent. That means only four more keys would have to be unfavorable. 

But let's leave aside the keys and look at history. How many times in the last 120 years has the party holding the White House prevailed in the elections where the incumbent didn’t run as in 1920, 1952, 1968, 2008, or 2016? Never. It’s a sure prescription for defeat. In effect, those calling for Biden to step aside want to recreate the same set of circumstances that led to defeat in 2016. 

If the odds are still in favor of the incumbent, why hasn't it shown up in the polls? 

Polls are snapshots, not predictors. Remember, the pollsters assured us Hillary Clinton was bound to win in 2016. In fact, the Princeton Election Consortium said there was a 99 percent chance that Clinton would win. The eminent professor, Sam Wang, said, “If I'm wrong I'll eat a bug on national TV.” And he did. The last Gallup poll showed Romney beating Obama in 2012. So, I don't use the polls for prediction. 

This is a particularly fluid election. We have the debate. We're going to have the sentencing of Donald Trump on July 11. We may have a mini-trial on his immunity claim in New York. We have two conventions coming up. So, even if you believe the polls, it's way too early. 

Finally, could things be different this time? Take a look at the economy, for instance. Unemployment is at or near a 50-year low, GDP is strong, the stock market is at or near an all-time high, inflation has cooled, and real wages have risen for those who need it most. And yet many Americans believe the economy is in recession. Is it possible that traditional criteria won’t be as predictive at a time when perceptions and data are diverging? 

I’m a historian not a psychic. It's always possible, in any given year, that events could be so different that they break the pattern of history. But the keys are very robust. Developmentally they go back to 1860—the horse and buggy days when Abe Lincoln was elected. Predictively, they go back to 1984 when Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term. 

What I think you're putting your finger on outside the context of the keys is a horrendous message deficit on the part of the Democrats. That was partly what we saw in the debate. It wasn't just Biden not being a great debater. It was that whoever prepared him didn't create a good message. And that's why there's this disconnect between the reality of the economy and a lot of perceptions. I've been screaming about the Democratic deficit in messaging for years. They don't seem to hear it. 

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