What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections

Nov 9, 2012
Originally published on November 9, 2012 12:46 pm

In January 2010, more than a year before Mitt Romney had formally announced he was running for president, political historian Allan Lichtman predicted President Obama would be re-elected in 2012.

On Tuesday, Lichtman extended his record of correctly forecasting the winner of the popular vote to eight straight elections.

What makes Lichtman interesting is that he makes predictions early, long before eve-of-election polls, long before October surprises, and sometimes even before the nominees have been chosen.

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.

He said he came to this idea after happening to meet a Russian geophysicist. They got to talking about earthquakes and asked themselves whether elections might follow the same principles as earthquakes.

"Everything we know about elections, we've already stolen from geophysics," Lichtman said in an interview shortly before Tuesday's election. "Tremors of political change, seismic movements of the voters, volcanic elections, political earthquakes. It's all geophysics anyway."

Rather than think of elections as battles between liberals and conservatives, or even between two candidates, Lichtman said he decided to test the idea that elections follow earthquake principles: You either have stability, or you have upheaval.

Translated to elections, if the incumbent party in the White House kept the White House after the election, that meant you had stability. If the incumbent party lost, that meant there was upheaval — an earthquake.

Lichtman analyzed presidential elections between 1860 and 1980. Over that 120-year period, he looked for markers of stability and markers of upheaval.

Much of what he found is intuitively obvious: When the country was in recession or there was a foreign policy disaster during the tenure of the last administration, the incumbent party was likely to lose. When there was a major domestic or foreign policy success, the economy was doing well, or an incumbent president was running for re-election, the party in power tended to hold on to power.

What Lichtman did was take his data seriously: He found that in every election between 1860 and 1980, when the answers to six or more of the 13 questions he devised went against the party in power, there was an upheaval — the challenger won.

He applied the model to subsequent elections. Starting in 1984, the model has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in every election — sometimes months or even years before the election takes place.

Lichtman's model raises questions about the way the media cover campaigns and the way candidates run for office because it suggests that the ups and downs of horse-race coverage, gaffes and ad campaigns may not be as important to the outcome as most people believe.

"Primarily, elections are responsive to these much deeper forces," Lichtman said. "Focusing on the campaign is like focusing on the froth of the wave, instead of the wave itself."

Lichtman said the model actually shows the American political system in a positive light. Basically, it suggests good governance tends to get rewarded. If a party is in power, it doesn't need to have a perfect track record to keep the White House. It can afford as many as five strikes against it — any more, and there is an earthquake and the challenger wins.

Before the 2012 election, Lichtman said his model showed the answers to only three of the 13 questions — he calls them "keys" — turning against Obama: One was the long-term state of the economy. A second was the fact that the incumbent party in the White House had taken a shellacking during the previous midterm elections. The third was that Obama's sizable disapproval ratings meant he could not be considered a once-in-a-generation charismatic leader.

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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.