Allan J. Lichtman takes the presidential debates to Russia

Historians in the News

Like E. H. Carr, I believe that history is as much about the future as about the past. This belief has guided my rather unorthodox forty-year career as a historian and led me to become an unofficial stand-in for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in mock presidential debates this past September in Russia. I took part in twelve such debates, sponsored by the United States Department of State, during a hectic ten-day period in four Russian cities—Moscow, Ryazan, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg. My route to representing Obama in these debates was as unconventional as my destination.

I turned to history my senior year in college after nearly completing a biology major. My background in science and mathematics paved the way for a career as history professor, with a specialty in the quantitative political history of the United States. In the 1980s, I began applying this expertise to the public realm by serving as an expert witness in voting rights and redistricting litigation. I have testified in more than seventy-five cases, including the Texas congressional redistricting case that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.

In 1981, I collaborated with Vladimir Keilis-Borok, an authority on mathematical prediction, to develop the Keys to the White House, a historically-based system for predicting and explaining the results of American presidential elections. The historical theory behind the Keys is that presidential elections are primarily referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House. The Keys system has correctly forecast the popular-vote results of all seven elections since 1984 and has alerted professional forecasters to the importance of integrating historical judgments into their predictive models. The Keys led to media exposure, a role in which I could bring historical perspective to illuminate the discussion of contemporary events.

This work as a public historian opened up the opportunity to participate in the State Department’s mock debate program in Russia. The official purpose of the program was not only to heighten awareness of the U.S. elections—and to use the debates as a way of informing Russian audiences of policy issues—but also to act as a teaching opportunity on the nuts and bolts of hosting such a forum. In other words, here was a chance to show the Russians firsthand how American democracy worked—a noble, if somewhat presumptuous goal....
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