A Systems Approach to Donald Trump (Revisited)
The original version of this analysis was published on March 6, 2017. The text has been updated to reflect events through the 2018 Midterm elections.
Like many political junkies, I spent much of my online time in 2016 following FiveThirtyEight to get the latest projections on the presidential election. Few credible prognosticators expected a Donald Trump victory, and on the eve of Election Day the site’s prediction engine had just lifted Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning to 70 percent. The 30 percent prevailed.
Future historians may be gentle and consider the outcome a perfect storm that doesn’t blame Silver’s Bayesian approach as much as flaws in polling that year. Even with FiveThirtyEight redeemed, there are other ways to project political success of presidential elections.
Two months before the 2016 election, Allan Lichtman called Trump the victor using his own method of analysis. The American University historian studied factors contributing to presidential election outcomes since 1860, leading him to develop—in collaboration with Russian mathematical geophysicist and seismologist Volodia Keilis-Borok—a 13-point framework that correctly predicted every election since 1984.
Lichtman’s model doesn’t concern itself with polls or platforms. It doesn’t care that Trump was caught on tape bragging about abusing women. It doesn’t worry about the validity of tax plans or human rights. Lichtman’s model derives its wisdom from the state of the administration at the time of the election. If at least 6 of the 13 key statements are false, the incumbent party loses.
This approach leverages insights we can learn from complex systems, where systemic behavior emerges as the outcome of many independent decisions made by its component parts. We see this in the way ants forage and birds flock. From Lichtman’s work, we can now see this in the way we elect our president, too. His model also suggests some broad areas where energies could be invested to create (or preserve, if you float that way) change in 2020.
In 2016, September 23 was the start of early voting in the U.S., beginning with South Dakota and Minnesota. Presuming the same schedule for 2020, the world has about 643 days left to sway the answers to these simple true-false statements.
The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
To argue that Donald Trump is a national hero would be a stretch from anywhere outside of Breitbart. He had no prior military experience, hasn’t saved any babies or trapped animals, and outside of presidential bids he had no political experience. However, there is no denying Trump is charismatic.
Throughout his 2016 campaign, Trump was short on specifics but overflowing with controversial statements and sound bites. According to MediaQuant, that behavior translated to $4.96 billion in free press. Trump already had $2 billion by Super Tuesday and finished his campaign with $1.72 billion more than Hillary Clinton. As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves quipped, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Trump’s charisma and media benefits have only amplified since he took office. For two years, his Twitter activity has been known to displace front-page news, and his policies have fueled fervent opposition.
Presuming nothing materializes to prompt a split Congress to remove him from office—special prosecutor Robert Mueller had been intentionally quiet during election season—Trump will be a charismatic incumbent in 2020.
The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
This isn’t a lock, but it is rare that an elected first-term president is not the candidate nominated for re-election by his party. Of the 38 men attempting to repeat their first victory, only one — Franklin Pierce — sought and lost their party’s nomination. Seven presidents decided not to run for re-election, and six others died in office and never had that opportunity.
All told, incumbent party candidates are 22–10 when they are also the sitting president. Five of those losses are from elevated vice presidents who were never elected to be president. It is far more likely for Trump to die or decide to be a one-term president than it is the Republicans won’t give him the chance to be re-elected.
The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
This one is tougher, as what constitutes “major changes in national policy” is subjective. Lichtman gave credit to Barack Obama for the Affordable Care Act in his first term, which the president signed into law before the midterms elections. Would a successful repeal of ACA have qualified? What about a moderate reform? It is still early, with almost half of Trump’s term remaining, but it isn’t clear how Lichtman might rule on this criteria.
In October before his election, Trump issued his Contract with the American Voter, a list of 28 promised actions in his first 100 days. Out of the gate, Trump was on an Obama-esque pace for using his executive order power — about twice the rate of their contemporaries — and was aggressively moving toward completing his plan. However, by the end of his 100 days, he had only managed to even give lip service to half. The Washington Post is keeping track of 60 campaign promises, giving Trump credit for keeping only 14 of them through the start of early voting in 2018.
The most success Trump has enjoyed is with the court system. Just a few days into his administration, Trump chose Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. This past September, he followed with Brett Kavanaugh to shift the highest court to the right for the foreseeable future, despite a contentious confirmation process that barely managed to get the minimum support from Senators. As 2018 draws to a close, Trump has seen 85 of his chosen judges approved, which includes 30 appellate court justices.
The sea change in the courts may already be sufficient for a positive Lichtman ruling, but there are still candidates for major policy change in the areas of immigration, policing, infrastructure, and international trade. If a border wall gets built, future administrations will have to deal with the repercussions to international relationships, facilities maintenance, and financial burden. Inaction, on the other hand, could also turn environmental policy into a legacy he doesn’t want.
Chances are good that, given four years, the impact of a Trump Administration will be felt by all for years to come.
After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
When Trump was sworn in, Republicans held a +45 advantage in the House. While that seemed like a large mountain to climb for Democrats, it wasn’t insurmountable. The 2018 election swung representation dramatically to the left, leaving Democrats with a +36 advantage and an important check on presidential power.
That degree of swing has occurred eight times since 1934 (38% of mid-term elections), most recently in 1994 and 2010. It is difficult for a party to gain ground, though, because incumbents win 9 times out of 10. Huge shifts come by knocking representatives out of their current jobs, or gerrymandering Congressional colleagues into primary rivals.
Presidents tend to lead while their party loses seats. During a string of 20 election cycles in control of the House, Democrats managed to survive the single terms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, despite Republican gains. Otherwise, control of the House was lost under every president since Eisenhower. With Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it happened immediately. Now, that is true of Donald Trump, as well.
The Lichtman Key specifically compares the most recent two midterm elections. In 2014, Republicans held 247 seats in the U.S. House. Even with one seat (NC-09) still undecided, the best they can do is 200. This is definitely a false statement for the incumbents.
There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
On Day One of his administration, Trump was met with protests that resulted in 200 arrests. Day Two saw worldwide marches that drew up to 5 million people—mostly women—who united in support of their intersectional interests. Since that January, follow-up actions have included a Day Without Immigrants and the Day Without Women, as well as flash-mob protests of the muslim ban executive order and the resumption of the Dakota Pipeline project through native lands. Resistance is fertile.
There is no shortage of progressive outrage at the moment. The question is whether there is enough energy to sustain this degree of action for two more years, or whether Trump’s own pace of action will remain a sufficient stimulus. His election certainly created a massive education in how to protest, and it is possible that the genie is not returning to the bottle.
Social unrest does not have to be characterized by violence. It would be enough if local communities are motivated into regular action in the form of rallies, phone calls and running for office. That certainly happened in 2018, with women running and winning at a record pace. Given the way protest to Trump’s administration began, there would need to be a record spike in apathy to not call this one against the incumbent party.
The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
Two weeks into his presidency, Trump racked up 50 lawsuits. The Russian intrigues quickly disrupted a couple of cabinet positions: Michael Flynn lasted less than a month on the job as his national security advisor, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the investigation. Two years after election, and the President still hasn’t released his tax returns.
The investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller is ongoing. Active almost as long as Trump as been President, it has resulted in 36 people charged and 4 sent to prison. With every day, impeachment seems less likely despite the growing scandals around Trump, if only because of the heavy lift that comes with removing an elected official. Short of that, the incumbent party will be saddled with the results of a roughly $30 million investigation.
It is safe to say that a former reality TV star and real estate mogul drawn to self-promotion long before living in the White House is a magnet for major scandal. The question remains whether the man who got elected despite bragging about sexual assault will be “tainted” by any mess he makes. It only has to happen once, though.
There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
While it seems impolitic to go after the job your party leader currently holds, we have to go back to Eisenhower when a President ran through their primary unopposed. However, few of those challenges were serious enough to turn this Lichtman factor into a false statement. It last happened in 1992, when Pat Buchanan revolted against George H.W. Bush and likely paved the way for Ross Perot’s run as an independent.
1884 was the last time an internal challenge proved successful. James Blaine displaced an ailing Chester A. Arthur, who had taken office as James A. Garfield’s successor (Blaine ultimately lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland). A Republican challenge to Trump does not have to prove successful, however, to satisfy Lichtman.
Among Republicans, the most likely to run against their sitting president may be Trump’s last two challengers in the 2016 primary. Ted Cruz took a principled stance when he refused to endorse Trump at the GOP convention, but then undercut it just before Election Day by phone banking for him. Former Ohio Governor John Kasich was part of the #NeverTrump coalition and was critical of the President shortly after inauguration. A few political rivals have cropped up in the interim, such as Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse. Disgruntled Republicans might also turn to a familiar face in Senator Mitt Romney, who called for more respect in politics during his victory speech.
In a party that was reluctant to fully support Trump, it seems likely someone will get an opportunity to embody dissent. Whether that challenge is deemed “serious” is another matter.
Third Party Challenge
There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
The deck is stacked against third-party candidates. Each state has varying degrees of difficulty in getting candidates on the ballot . In Indiana, for example, ballot access requires 2 percent of the vote in the most recent race for Secretary of State. National campaigns are difficult to cultivate, as well, because of the winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes (another state-controlled rule). To become a third-party candidate for President is to admit you can’t win and hope you can influence policy.
In our most volatile periods, that is exactly what happens. Dissension can splinter into multiple parties. In 1828, Andrew Jackson became the first Democratic president. Four years earlier, he won the most popular and electoral votes, but not enough electorates to win the office. Henry Clay wielded his influence in the House to get John Quincy Adams a first-ballot election, becoming Secretary of State in the bargain (at the time, the known pathway to Presidency), but Jackson’s election in 1824 ushered in the Second Party System following a surge in voter participation. We are currently at the end of the Sixth Party System, which has lasted longer than any before it.
2016 saw much activity around the Libertarian and Green political parties. That could be a foundation for permanent migration away from both Republicans and Democrats. The fact that both major parties are searching for an identity at the same time lessens the risk of splintering into something new.
Some of the same people who might challenge Trump within the GOP are possible third-party candidates as well. If Kasich can’t find footing in the traditional Republican party, he would be a big name as a Libertarian or independent. The third-party challenge could also come from the left, in the form of someone like Bernie Sanders.
In the bizarre politics of the day, the third-party challenge to the GOP could be Trump himself. That would be a double hit for the Republicans, as it would also flip the Incumbency key described above.
The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
This is almost a given that the Democrats will find someone with fire in their belly and a gift for speaking. Trump turned Presidential debate into performance art. For all of the undeniable achievements from her storied political career, Hillary Clinton often came across as stilted when she spoke or attempted campaign humor.
Kamala Harris is Lichtman’s initial pick as a charismatic challenger. There are plenty of other options on the horizon, too—including Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kristen Gillibrand, Eric Garcetti, Julián Castro, Sherrod Brown, and Beto O’Rourke—people who possess a strong political resume and can rally a crowd.
However, it is clear that political experience is no longer a requirement. The list of viable candidates can extend beyond governors (only 1/3 of which are Democrats) and Congress folk. There is a new generation of young political powers who are operating at the state and city level, most of whom would are starting to be introduced to the nation. Beyond that, there are liberal celebrities who already have a popular base.
The most intriguing of the names that has surfaced recently is Oprah Winfrey, who was pressed to respond to the question of running for office by David Rubenstein. There was no commitment in her answer — in fact, she clarified that she would not run — but the fact that it made news and fueled talk shows reflects the power she wields and an appeal that crosses party lines. A president is mostly someone who can assemble a great team and cast a vision for people to follow, so maybe we should be looking for those skill sets and not legislative prowess.
As it relates to Lichtman’s criteria, it would be a huge disappointment if Trump’s challenger is not charismatic.
May Not Matter
At this point, the incumbent party could already have lost, according to the model. The strong showing by young progressives and new leaders in 2018 may snowball over the incumbent party and result in the decisive six false statements. If so, the economic and international performance by the Trump administration won’t matter, at least in the context of election outcome.
In the event the Republicans stave off even one of the the factors described above, here is the outlook for the remaining Lichtman factors.
The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
Lichtman’s model values equally both enjoying international success and avoiding international failure. They are not the same thing, but any foreign policy that results in a significant impact is enough to make a key evaluation. While it is impossible to predict what new crisis will emerge around the globe, we can look at a couple relevant ones now as the most important outcomes to consider.
Syria is in civil war, with the U.S. and Russia major players in a potential resolution. Our policies under Obama were a source of contention during Trump’s campaign, so there was an expectation that this new administration will work toward a solution. If Russian relations with the U.S. become more favorable — investigations into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign could thwart his Putin bromance — Syria could easily become a major success as a new Cold War evaporates. Syria could also be destabilized, with violence spilling into other areas of the world and bring a spike in global terrorism. According to Trump, Syria is already a success.
Then there is China, a political target of the Republicans before taking office. Trump flaunted protocol by speaking directly to Taiwan’s leadership, and his economic sparring with China could have ramifications for national defense. In North Korea, where Kim Jong-un produces significantly more missile tests and one more nuclear test than his father, Trump has been both chummy and aggravating. China is their primary global partner, so diplomatic relations with North Korea could affect economic policies, too.
Many interpersonal relationships with other world leaders have soured under this administration. In two years, Trump has literally become a laughingstock for global partners, but it is unclear whether any of his ineffective policies will rise to the level of “failure.”
Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
Since economics is not my strong suit, I have to leave these Lichtman statements in a black box after pointing out that the Great Recession may make success of long-term economic key a challenging mission for the incumbent administration.
It is difficult to discern where we start Obama’s work. In 2008, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was 49,000 dollars, but it plummeted to about 47,500 the next year—Obama’s first in high office—due to the momentum of the situation he inherited. Even being conservative by taking the 2008 number, the Trump administration would have to achieve 55,000. If we take the 2009–2017 numbers, however, Trump would have to get us to 58,500. As it stands now, we are now at an all-time high with a GDP per capita of 59,231.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that we’ll be fully recovered from the previous recession by the next election. However, many analysts are anticipating that 2020 will be a recession year, or certainly that a future recession is more likely than a current one. The next economic bubble likely to pop is student loans, with debt clearing $2 trillion by 2022 and 40 percent of borrowers predicted to default by the following year.
To count as a bona-fide recession, the economic downturn has to last several months. Since the candidates and political makeup of our government will be known by the time we can confirm whether 2020 is a recession year, this key is less likely to be the deciding factor in predicting incumbent party success.
While Lichtman’s Keys model includes much more nuance than described her, to mitigate some of the surface subjectivity, it does appear that the factors most influenced by normal citizens are the selection of candidates. By encouraging conservatives to challenge the President and backing a charismatic liberal candidate, voters can make it unlikely there will be a second term for Donald Trump. With the Keys model, though, they don’t have to wait until the general election of 2020 to have an impact.