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October Surmise: Predicting The Next President

Fans wear President Obama and Mitt Romney masks at the Atlanta Braves-Miami Marlins game Sept. 25 in Atlanta. One of many quirky election year predictors is based on which candidate's likeness sells better as a Halloween mask.
David Goldman
Fans wear President Obama and Mitt Romney masks at the Atlanta Braves-Miami Marlins game Sept. 25 in Atlanta. One of many quirky election year predictors is based on which candidate's likeness sells better as a Halloween mask.

Predicting a presidential winner is one of America's favorite pastimes in an election year.

Pundits and bloggers rely on introspection and retrospection for their predictions. The politerati prognosticate at Aspen Institute round tables and in the Cambridge Journal. Pollsters crunch survey data to divine a victor. Everybody gets in on the act.

One of the more historically successful seers is Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and primogenitor of the 13 Keys to the Presidency. It's a checklist of a baker's dozen conditions that favor the continuing residency of the White House by the political party already in power. The incumbent president is judged on each of the checklist items, such as the strength of the economy, the state of social unrest, absence of a serious third-party candidate and the lack of a major scandal.

Lichtman's system — a sort of geophysical model, similar to one that might predict earthquakes — has correctly precogged presidential elections since 1984.

And this time around? "The keys have predicted an Obama win since January 2010," Lichtman says today.

Could that change before Election Day?

"The keys are the big picture and will not change," he says.

Lichtman is not the only prophesier who is sticking his neck out. People are using all kinds of portentous — and pretentious — indexes to augur the future, including Halloween mask sales and 7-Eleven coffee cups. Other forecasters are coming out of the woodwork — from the most unlikely places.

Folding Obama's Laundry

The renter-centric website Apartments.com surveyed its visitors and discovered that 70 percent of those who responded predict that President Obama will be re-elected. (In 2008, more than half of the renters surveyed preferred Obama to Republican John McCain.) In the 2012 contest between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, more than 70 percent of respondents would prefer to have Obama as a neighbor or a landlord. And more than 70 percent said that if both candidates left their clean clothes in the apartment complex's laundry room, they would fold Obama's laundry.

At the Occidental Grill & Seafood in Washington — just a stone crab's throw from the White House — political observers are not only reading tea leaves, but chocolate chip cookie choices. Diners select from a pair of dessert delicacies — one with mint is made from a recipe by Michelle Obama; the one with M&M's comes from Ann Romney.

And American Chia is giving customers freedom of choice between Chia Obama and Chia Romney — statuettes that grow grass on their heads. "Just spread the seeds, water and watch them grow," the says. Roughly speaking, the site reports, Chia Obama sales are at 63 percent, and Chia Romney sales are at 37 percent.

Football Or Baseball?

Meanwhile, analysts at the ticket-resale behemoth StubHub have found that sports fans in Republican-favoring states buy a lot more football tickets, while fans in Democratic-leaning states buy more baseball tickets. Is it possible that flipping that information around may help us know which candidate will win which state?

In September 2008, both New York and Massachusetts — strong Obama states — had very high "BFRs" (baseball-to-football ratios). Massachusetts had the second highest ratio out of all the states in the nation, according to StubHub data, and New York had the seventh highest. Now, in 2012, the BFRs continue to be high in both states: Massachusetts was ranked fifth in September and New York was eighth.

On the other hand, Texas — a strong Romney state — has one of the lowest BFRs in the nation: More folks are buying football tickets and, presumably, voting Republican. In September 2008, Texas had the 39th highest BFR, and in September 2012, it was 38th.

According to Andy Sevastopoulos of StubHub, back in 2008, the states that bought baseball tickets over football tickets by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio — including Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York — all went for Obama. And the states that purchased football tickets in a vast majority over baseball — including Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Idaho — favored McCain by at least a 10-point advantage.

This time around, sports fans in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina have been buying more football tickets on StubHub than they did in 2008, and those in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia are buying more baseball tickets.

What does all of this mean? When all is said and done, of course, the only thing that surveys by attention-seeking companies such as StubHub, Apartments.com or Chia actually prove is that all kinds of companies are getting into the prophesy game.

But you could have predicted that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.