NEW HAVEN, CONN. — DESPITE widespread public disapproval of the Republican White House, President Bush will go into next fall's campaign strongly favored to win reelection.
Two political forecasters, using completely different methods, predict that Mr. Bush will handily defeat Gov. Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency.
Ray Fair, an economist at Yale University, calculates that Bush's margin over Governor Clinton will be a landslide, especially if the economy shows a few more signs of improvement.
Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University, says only a foreign-policy disaster or some other major setback could prevent the Republicans from retaining the presidency.
These predictions, however, could be turned on their heads if Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who may run as an independent, performs as strongly as recent surveys indicate. A just-released Texas Poll shows Mr. Perot with 35 percent, Bush with 30 percent, and Clinton with 20 percent among Texas voters.
Professor Fair depends on an economic equation to make his prediction, while Dr. Lichtman relies on 13 "keys" to see which way the election will turn.
Both Fair and Lichtman have developed their methods of prediction over the years, and each has shown itself to be surprisingly accurate in its own way.
Fair says his system works because it is based on two factors that are vital to voters - inflation and economic growth. Those two elements are so influential that they virtually determine which party wins, he says.
The Yale professor, whose principal research involves consumer behavior, enjoys showing visitors to his office a comparison between his 1988 forecasts and the concurrent results of the Gallup Organization.
During the 1988 campaign year, Gallup reported wild swings in public opinion. In June and July, for example, Michael Dukakis led Bush by as much as 17 points. Then in mid-August, Gallup showed Bush moving into a narrow lead.
On the same graph, Fair displays his own month-by-month predictions - and they seldom waver. From May to November, they gave Bush between 52 and 55 percent. Bush's final vote: 53.9 percent.
"I use this chart to needle the pollsters," Fair says. "After August 1988, they more or less got it right."
The professor's equation uses the inflation rate for the two years before the election. The economic-growth figure is based on the per capita rate of expansion during the second and third quarters of the election year. When the figures are not available, he uses the best estimates from economists.
Currently, Fair estimates the inflation rate will be 3 percent, and the growth rate will be 2 percent. If those figures are correct, his formula shows that Clinton would get 42.6 percent of the vote. Bush would get 57.4 percent.
Fair says the margin of error is about 3 percent, although in the last six elections the margin of error was a mere 1.1 percent. Even so, he failed to name the winner in 1968, when he predicted Hubert Humphrey would get 51.3 percent. His actual vote against Richard Nixon was 49.6.
Likewise, Fair came very close in 1960 but missed the winner when he said John F. Kennedy would get 49.2 percent. Kennedy got 50.1 and won.
At American University in Washington, D.C., Professor Lichtman's system can't predict the Republican and Democratic percentages. But he has an excellent record of naming the actual winner with his system of 13 keys. The keys include factors like the economy, political trends, performance in office, and personality. Lichtman's system works like this:
To win reelection, the "in" party, currently the GOP, must have between eight and 13 keys in its favor. A higher number, such as 12 or 13, indicates the president will win big. But a smaller number, such as eight, indicates a closer race.
Lichtman says that currently eight keys favor the Republicans. But the other five keys are flashing warning signs:
1. Long-term growth under his administration has been less than under Ronald Reagan. Bush lacks economic momentum.
2. Republicans have failed to gain seats in the House of Representatives over the past four years. Bush isn't expanding his base.
3. Perot's serious third-party challenge indicates widespread discontent.
4. The Bush White House has failed to achieve major policy changes. That indicates a lack of leadership.
5. Bush hasn't the kind of charisma which helped earlier presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower.
Even with those five keys against Bush, however, Democrats lack the vital sixth key to open the door to the White House.
Lichtman says the most promising sixth key for the Democrats would the short-term economy, which might still turn down again this spring or summer. "Another double-dip is not impossible," Lichtman says.
Democratic prospects could also improve if there were a major GOP scandal.
Fair concludes that right now, Clinton's chances seem to be "quite small."
And what about Perot? These systems of predicting elections are based on the past, Fair and Lichtman say. They are not designed to foresee something as unexpected, and unprecedented, as a third-party upset.