American University Historian On Election Results: 'Polls Are Not Predictions' NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University, about his prediction model and the vagaries of polling.

American University Historian On Election Results: 'Polls Are Not Predictions'

American University Historian On Election Results: 'Polls Are Not Predictions'

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University, about his prediction model and the vagaries of polling.


If you're feeling let down by all the polls and data-driven journalism that failed to predict the outcome of the election, then Professor Allan Lichtman has a remedy that you might try next time. The American University historian was the rare pundit to predict a Trump victory. And he did it according to a method that he has developed - a method that, at the very least, is a lot cheaper than commissioning a national public opinion survey. Allan Lichtman joins us now from Doha, Qatar, where he was part of the Al-Jazeera English's election coverage. Welcome to the program once again.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And if I understand this, you examined 13 key factors based on historical performance in elections - 13 yes-or-no questions. And depending on the score, you predict a winner.

LICHTMAN: That is correct. That is based on the study of every American presidential election from 1860 to 1980. I developed it in 1981 in collaboration with the distinguished mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok and have since used it to predict nine elections in a row.

SIEGEL: Now, I don't think we have time for all 13 factors, but give us two or three and how they figured in your decision this year.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Some critical factors were - and the way the system works is whether or not the party holding the White House will lose. And they had against them the losses in the midterm elections, also the fact that the sitting president wasn't running again. Open seats are tough. Couple of other things that showed their weakness was the lack of significant policy change in the Obama second term and the lack of a big foreign policy triumph, like dispatching bin Laden in the second term.

SIEGEL: In the second term - so when you score the things that the party in the White House didn't have going for it, you figured that party was not remaining in the White House this election.

LICHTMAN: That's right, and they had other things going against them, as well. And this had nothing to do with the campaign, had nothing to do with a dozen women claiming that Donald Trump had harassed or assaulted them, had nothing to do with the Comey letter because I issued my first prediction before all of that and then doubled down on that prediction just a couple of weeks ago.

SIEGEL: You catch a lot of grief from people when you make your predictions and studiously ignore polls and very newsworthy events like the ones you've just described?

LICHTMAN: Everybody told me I was absolutely wrong this time because all of the polls were telling otherwise. Polls are not predictions, and they are abused and misused as though they were predictions 'cause they're easy to cover.

SIEGEL: Now, a question about that winning streak of yours. If I understand it, you claim predicting Al Gore's victory in 2000 as a win since he won the popular vote. But Hillary Clinton appears to also be winning the popular vote, and you don't claim a loss for predicting Donald Trump.

LICHTMAN: Well, because I pointed out in this election while the keys certainly favor the defeat of the party holding the White House, that you also have the Donald Trump factor. First time I've ever qualified a prediction an out-of-the-box, history-smashing, unqualified candidate. So you had two forces colliding, which produced a win in the Electoral College, but essentially a tie, as far as I could tell, in the popular vote. We don't know how it's going to come out ultimately. So, in fact, the keys came as close as you can to a contradictory election.

SIEGEL: Professor Lichtman, I take it that you're not a big fan of data-driven analyses of presidential elections.

LICHTMAN: I don't call it data-driven. I have no problem with data. My prediction system is based on a huge amount of data, you know. But I do object to poll-and-pundit-driven analysis, which is not meaningful because it's not based on any kind of systematic assessment of how elections work. And I'm not saying my system is the only way of systematically looking at elections, but I think it's a very, very accurate and deep alternative to the way we look at elections as horse races with the pollsters keeping score.

SIEGEL: Well, congratulations on being the rare pundit, if you accept the title, to have forecast of Donald Trump victory last night.

LICHTMAN: (Laughter) Well, thank you so much, and I did take a lot of grief for this prediction.

SIEGEL: That's Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at the American University, who said that the Democrats would not be able to hold onto the White House in 2016. We reached him via Skype.

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