WASHINGTON — FORGET about campaign strategies, messages, and money. The key to winning the White House: hemlines. Or perhaps a candidate's throwing arm. Or the excitement level of national party conventions.
In a nation obsessed with predictions, experts have come up with an infinite number of serious and not so serious ways to determine who will capture the White House.
In fact, the presidential prediction biz has become a sort of cottage industry in recent years. The top prognosticators, such as American University Professor Allan Lichtman, garner broad media attention and audiences in the White House. Others draw on campaign lore and their fame reaches no further than the dinner-party circuit. There is, for instance, the World Series method, which says an American League victory presages a Republican win in November. Or the left-handed rule: that no southpaw ever wins reelection (sorry, Bill Clinton).
More serious is the class of econometricians, whose models are so densely packed with Greek symbols they can cause the mathematically challenged among us to go weak-kneed. But in fact, say practitioners of these methods, they're so simple anyone can use them. Just plug in the right economic data, and voila, you've got the winner.
Of course, 1992 was such an odd election year (see Ross Perot) that many economic models failed. But not to worry. The models have been tweaked, and they're ready for November. Ray Fair at Yale University has got Sen. Bob Dole winning by a nose. And, just to clarify matters, Kristina Frenyea and David Wyss of DRI/McGraw-Hill, an economic consulting firm in Lexington, Mass., have run the numbers on their own model, and the winner is Mr. Clinton.
Which brings us to Professor Lichtman, who sets himself apart from the economic predictors by factoring in lots of subjective criteria, such as "charisma" and "social unrest."
The path to the presidency hinges on the performance of the incumbent, and as of now, Clinton is set to win reelection, says Lichtman, author of the freshly updated book, "The Keys to the White House."
Under Lichtman's system, which is based on historical analysis of all presidential elections dating back to 1860, 13 factors or "keys" determine whether an incumbent party retains the White House. Each key that turns works against the party in power. "Turn six keys, and the incumbent party loses," says Lichtman, a wiry, energetic academic who, on this day at least, favors Burger King take-out over gourmet fare.
So far, Clinton has turned four keys. Two more - such as a foreign-policy disaster and a major escalation of Whitewater - and he's out.
Lichtman's system has gotten perhaps the most serious consideration in Washington political circles. The professor - a mathematical historian, or cliometrician, by training - once sat for a lengthy chat in the White House mess with the late GOP operative Lee Atwater, who was curious what it would mean for the party's chances in 1984 if President Reagan didn't run again. More recently, he has consulted with Vice President Al Gore, who was most interested in the "scandal" key.
At this point, Lichtman says, Clinton is looking reasonably solid for reelection. The GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 turned one "key" against the president. Clinton's failure to effect a major change in national policy turned another key, as did his inability to score a major success in foreign or military affairs.
Finally, Lichtman flunks him on "charisma," a judgment some might find debatable. Under his method, a candidate has to score pretty high on the all-time charisma list - on the order of, say, a John Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan - to keep that key from turning. "If Clinton wasn't dogged by the personal stuff," Lichtman says, he might get credit for charisma.
One factor that might well turn against Clinton is the "third party" key, which either Mr. Perot or Pat Buchanan could trigger. Lichtman bucks the conventional wisdom in stating that a third-party or independent candidate would hurt Clinton more than Dole. History has shown, he says, that independent candidacies almost always hurt the incumbent party.
The bottom line is that presidential elections aren't always determined by the economy, stupid. The election of 1968, for example, couldn't be explained by economic factors.
Lichtman says that since he came up with his system in 1981, with the help of Russian mathematician Volodia Keilis-Borok, he's successfully predicted the result of every presidential election since. The question is when he's able to do so. In April 1992, he was calling the election for President Bush. By September, he had switched to Clinton - after the sixth and decisive key, the short-term economy, had turned against Bush. Rightly or wrongly, the public believed the country was still in a recession.
"The point I'm making is, campaigns PERIOD don't matter," says Lichtman. "Nothing that candidates say during the campaign makes a difference. George Bush could not talk his way out of people thinking there was a recession, because everything that is said or done in a campaign is heavily discounted by the public."
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says he appreciates these prediction systems as a way of identifying powerful forces, but cautions against betting the mortgage on any of them. "We are so obsessed with prediction that we take it to a level that's misleading," says the presidential scholar.
But then he offers his own theory: the boring-convention indicator. Since 1964, whichever party has had the more orderly - read, dull - political convention wins in November. In other words, a messy convention means you lose. In 1968, the protests were the story. In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo generated more excitement than Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. In 1992, Bush was overshadowed by Mr. Buchanan.
"This suggests problems for Dole," says Mr. Ornstein. "Buchanan could cause problems again. And the Republicans should think long and hard about making Colin Powell their keynote speaker."
And what about that hemline theory, which states that shorter skirts mean a Democrat wins? Jimmy Newcomer of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York says the trend this year on hems is "anything goes." Maybe this means something new. Can you say President Perot?