In the Quake Model, Rumblings Favor Obama

A historian with an interest in politics found himself seated next to a Soviet geophysicist and mathematician who studied earthquake prediction. The two researchers figured out that the science of forecasting earthquakes offered an important insight into presidential elections.

While people who study elections usually scrutinize individual voters, politicians, advocacy groups, issues, campaign contributors and volunteers, Keilis-Borok and Lichtman decided to think about an election the same way geophysicists regard earthquakes. Getting too close to the phenomenon — the views of individual voters and campaigners — is like trying to study an earthquake by analyzing every single molecule of rock and soil.

"The systems that generate elections and earthquakes are complex systems," said Keilis-Borok, who is now a professor of earth sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They are not predictable by simple equations, but after coarse-graining — averaging — they become predictable."

Lichtman and Keilis-Borok analyzed every presidential election between 1860 and 1980. Rather than study how politicians waged campaigns, and what the specific issues were in each election, the researchers stepped back to look for general markers, such as whether the party incumbent in the White House had gained or lost seats in the previous midterm election, and whether the incumbent party had achieved a monumental policy victory.

"We reconceptualized presidential politics in geophysical terms," said Lichtman, who teaches at American University. "We didn't look at it as Reagan versus Carter or Republicans versus Democrats or liberals versus conservatives. Rather, we looked at elections as stability versus upheavals." Stability, according to their definition, is when the party that is incumbent in the White House — in this case, the Republican Party — wins the next presidential election. Upheavals are when the opposition party wins elections.

The researchers found that four markers or "keys" correctly predicted every presidential election over 120 years. These keys were whether the incumbent party's candidate won the presidential nomination on the first ballot with at least two-thirds of the delegate count, the absence of a third-party candidate who won 5 percent or more of the overall vote, the absence of a recession, and the presence of a major policy victory in the previous term.

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