The key to defeating Donald Trump in 2020 may be more about protest than policy. (Photo credit to Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

A Systems Approach to Donald Trump

Allan Lichtman’s model suggests what is important in 2020

Like most 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, however, and Nate Silver’s methodology took a hit.

Future historians may be gentle and consider the outcome a perfect storm that doesn’t blame Silver’s Bayesian approach. However, there are other ways to project political success.

Two months earlier, 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 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.

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 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. It is no coincidence that is when Lichtman made his Trump prediction. Presuming the same schedule in 2020, the world has about 1300 days to sway the answers to these simple true-false statements.

Favors Trump

Incumbent charisma

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 has no military experience, hasn’t saved any babies or trapped animals, and outside of presidential bids he has 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.

Presuming nothing materializes to prompt a conservative Congress to remove him from office, 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.

Policy change

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 qualify? What about a moderate reform?

In October before his election, Trump issued his Contract with the American Voter, a list of 60 promised actions in his first 100 days. It is early, but he is on an Obama-esque pace for using his executive order power—about twice the rate of their contemporaries—and is aggressively moving toward completing his plan.

Other than the ACA, however, the best candidates for major policy change would be 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.

Favors Change

Social unrest

There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

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 January, follow-up actions have included a Day Without Immigrants and the upcoming 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.

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 to four years, or whether Trump’s own pace of action will remain a sufficient stimulus. His election has certainly created a massive education in how to protest, so it is possible that the genie is already out of 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. Given the way 2017 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 have already 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. The President still hasn’t released his tax returns.

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.

In Play

Party Mandate

After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

Midterm elections are less than 2 years away, and Republicans currently hold a +45 advantage in the House. While that seems like a large mountain to climb for Democrats, it isn’t insurmountable.

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.


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 will 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. Ohio Governor John Kasich was part of the #NeverTrump coalition and has already been critical of the President. In a party that was reluctant to fully support Trump, it seems likely someone will get an opportunity to embody dissent.

Third party

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. This happened in 1828 when 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.

Challenger charisma

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, and for all of the undeniable achievements from her storied political career, Hillary Clinton came across as stilted when she spoke. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, ​Julián Castro, Kristen Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Tulsi Gabbard, Kasim Reed, Pete Buttigieg … There are plenty of options on the horizon, people who possess a 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 have 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 Lichtman’s model. A strong showing by young progressives in 2018 could motivate chaos in both parties and give the incumbents the decisive six false statements. That means the actual economic and international performance by the Trump administration wouldn’t matter (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.

Short-term economy

The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

Evaluation of this statement may come last. The candidates and political makeup of our government will be known by the time we can confirm whether 2020 is a recession year. Economists can only say now that a future recession is more likely than a current one. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that we’ll be fully recovered from the previous recession by 2020. In short, worry about this when we get to 2019.

Long-term economy

Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

This will be open to some interpretation, as it is difficult to discern where we start Obama’s work. In 2008, for example, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was 49,000 dollars, but it plummeted to about 47,500 the next year, Obama’s first year. We are now at an all-time high. Even being conservative by taking the 2008 number, the Trump administration would have to reach 55,000. If we take the 2009–2017 numbers, however, Trump would have to get us to 58,500. Medium-term expectations project 54,500.

Economics is not my strong suit, so I’ll leave this Lichtman statement in a black box while pointing out that it is unclear whether Trump has a reasonable shot of achieving this or if the recession Obama inherited makes this an impossible mission for the incumbent administration.

Foreign/military failure

The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

Foreign/military success

The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

These are similar statements, but there is a great possibility both could prove true or false. While it is impossible to predict what new crisis will emerge around the globe, we can look at a couple happening 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 is already 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.

Then there is North Korea. Kim Jong-un has produced significantly more missile tests and one more nuclear test than his father. The primary global partner in this scenario is China, a target of Trump before taking office. He flaunted protocol by speaking directly to Taiwan’s leadership, and his economic sparring with China could have ramifications for national defense.

Setting aside all that we don’t know about the future, these two examples of current global theatre could put the incumbent party—if not the U.S. in general—in a precarious position by 2020.

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