What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections : It's All Politics Political historian Allan Lichtman says he sees elections the way geophysicists see earthquakes — as events fundamentally driven by structural factors deep beneath the surface, rather than by superficial events at the surface.
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What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections

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What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections

What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections

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Forecasters predicted much of Sandy's destruction. They also made forecasts of the presidential election.


Nate Silver, a blogger of the New York Times, was fiercely criticized during the campaign for forecasting overwhelming odds of President Obama's reelection.

MONTAGNE: Republicans made their own forecasts - not just a victory, but for a landslide win for Mitt Romney.

INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been talking with a man who has made forecasts even earlier in presidential election campaigns without even consulting a poll.

Shankar, who is he, and he what does he do?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, his name is Allan Lichtman. He's a political historian at American University. And this Tuesday is the eighth time in a row that he's correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote. And what makes Lichtman really interesting is how early he makes his predictions. I talked with him last week, and I want to play you a little bit of our conversation.

Who is going to win the next election?


VEDANTAM: Just for the record, the election hasn't yet taken place. And you're telling me four days before the election that you know who's going to win.

LICHTMAN: I told you in January 2010 who I knew was going to win.

INSKEEP: Before there was even a Republican nominee. So what does he do to try to find that out?

VEDANTAM: Well, he told me that 30 years ago, he happened to be sitting down at dinner next to a geophysicist. And they were talking about how earthquakes form, that they're driven by these faults that are deep under the surface of the Earth. And they said: Is it possible elections work exactly the same way? And Lichtman told me the more he thought about it, the more plausible the analogy seemed to be between elections and earthquakes.

LICHTMAN: We've already stolen from geophysics: tremors of political change, seismic movements of the voters, volcanic elections, political earthquakes. It's all geophysics, anyway.

VEDANTAM: So he told me that he said: What if we don't think about elections in the conventional way? So don't think about them as liberal versus conservative. Don't think about them even as one candidate versus the other candidate. Think about them in terms of earthquakes, right? Earthquakes have two states. You either have stability - in which case we don't have an earthquake - or you have upheaval, in which case you do.

You translate that to elections, when you have stability, the incumbent party in the White House keeps the White House. When you upheaval, you have an earthquake, and the challenging party takes over.

And so what Lichtman did was he studied every election between 1860 and 1980. That's 120 years. He said: What are the markers that are associated with stability and what are the markers that are associated with upheaval? And what he found, in many ways, was quite obvious. You know, he found that when the country was in a recession you are more likely to have upheaval...


VEDANTAM: ...the incumbent party was likely to lose. When you had a major foreign policy victory, you know, the incumbent party was more likely to win. When you have a domestic policy victory, you are more likely to win. You have a major scandal, you're more likely to lose.

So he teamed up with 13 of these questions, you know: Is there a third-party candidacy? Does the president have a primary challenger? Is there an incumbent president who is running for election? And what he found between 1860 and 1980 is that when six of the 13 questions went against the incumbent party, you had an earthquake. In other words, the challenging party took over.

And what he did was he started applying this model prospectively to every election afterwards.

INSKEEP: From the '80s onward.

VEDANTAM: Starting from 1984 to 2012, his the model has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote - not weeks, not days, but months or even years in advance.

INSKEEP: So these underlying factors, these tectonic factors are more important than all the stuff that we cover all year, the conventions, the debates?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. In fact, I put this question to him. Here's what I asked him.

What does that mean, all of the other stuff that we have in campaigns is about? You know, the speeches, the nominees, the money, the ads, the consultants? What is that?

LICHTMAN: It means it's all about the wrong things. Primarily, elections are responsive to these much deeper forces. Focusing on the campaign is like focusing on the froth of the wave, instead of the wave itself.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if there's something about this theory that misses the point, though. Because if you have these underlying factors - like, say, you're a challenger and you've got a weak economy. I mean, you have to go out and campaign. You have to persuade people of your view of the economy. You actually have to work through all these parts of the campaign. You can't just sit there and rely on historical forces to bring you victory while you stay at home.

VEDANTAM: For sure. I don't think Lichtman's model suggests that if - because the fundamentals are in your favor, you can stay home and not campaign. He's a assuming that campaigns will do what they did between 1860 and 1980. But what he's saying is when the two campaigns do that, odds are they're largely going to cancel one another out, and what ends up then deciding the outcome are the fundamentals.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can follow him on Twitter @Hidden Brain. You can also follow this program @MORNING EDITION and @nprinskeep.

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