Behind Helmut Norpoth’s desk at Stony Brook University is a book case that stands about six feet tall and four feet wide. It’s packed to capacity with books mostly covering politics and history — emblematic of his nearly five decades in political education.
On the wall behind him are relics of American politics, including a World War II-era Life Magazine and a Harry Truman campaign poster that he said his son found at a yard sale for a couple of bucks. One of these posters — above all others — bears special significance to him.
“See right here,” Norpoth said, pointing to a John F. Kennedy campaign poster. “Right up here.”
A 16-year-old Norpoth was about 4,000 miles away from Washington D.C. when Kennedy was elected president in 1960. He was a teenager in his native Germany and admits that he knew little about Kennedy’s policy proposals at the time.
“I have to be honest, it was really more [about] glamour,” Norpoth said of his support of Kennedy. “If you asked me about it, I knew he was a Democrat, but I mean I don’t think that was why I liked him or any particular policies that he had because I don’t think I’d be able to name too many. Just the new frontier, getting America moving again.”
Kennedy’s charisma sparked Norpoth’s lifelong love of politics. He ended up majoring in political science at The Free University of Berlin, and eventually studied abroad in America.
“I think my interest in coming into this country, which was about six years after that, was a result of [Kennedy] as well,” Norpoth said.
After studying abroad for a semester, Norpoth spent much of the rest of his life in the United States. He received master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan, where he had his first experience as a teaching fellow. He then worked as a professor at the University of Texas, before returning to Germany for three years to teach statistics. After coming back to America for good, he taught at the University of Arizona briefly, before making his final stop at Stony Brook in 1979.
Despite his expertise in American politics, Norpoth never actually voted in a U.S. election until 1992. He became a naturalized citizen in 1991.
“I felt [strange] teaching American politics, elections and voting and I don’t vote here, because I’m not a citizen,” Norpoth said.
And so, Norpoth became an American — just like Kennedy.
One of his most noteworthy accomplishments while at Stony Brook actually came shortly after he voted for the first time, with his development of what he calls the “Primary Model” to forecast presidential elections.
His model puts emphasis on primary results, particularly in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and takes into account the cyclical nature in which presidents are typically elected. For example, the only time either major party held the White House for three straight terms since 1953 was when Ronald Reagan held office from 1981 to 1989 and George H.W. Bush held office from 1989 to 1993. Consequently, the model assumes that Democrats will have this factor working against them in November.
The model has been right in all five presidential elections since it was first introduced ahead of the 1996 election, and it has retroactively been correct in every presidential race but one since 1912. The only exception was the 1960 election between JFK and Richard Nixon. Kennedy won.
Norpoth spoke at a Stony Brook Alumni Association event in February, where he shockingly predicted that Donald Trump, if he received the Republican Party nomination, had a 97 percent chance of winning a hypothetical election over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to his election forecast model. This number has since dropped to 87 percent due to the results of the South Carolina primary.
The story was first reported by The Statesman. National outlets soon picked up this startling claim and began running their own stories on the Primary Model. Stories about his prediction were printed in The Daily Caller, The Huffington Post, Daily Mail and his story was even featured on the cover of the New York Post. Norpoth subsequently appeared on several cable news shows to discuss his findings.
“I didn’t expect any kind of attention that really followed it,” Norpoth said. “I had no idea. I had given the same talk in 2012, same venue with the Alumni Association even earlier in January, around the New Hampshire primary. And I predicted Obama would win the election with close to 90 percent certainty.”
At 72, Norpoth got his first taste of fame thanks to his model. The fame, however, wasn’t something that was discussed in his classes at Stony Brook too much. He stuck to the subject at hand, according to one student.
“I remember one day he showed up wearing a suit, and I was like ‘Oh, where was he?’” Kevin Rutigliano, a senior political science major, said. “And my mom watches Fox so she’s like, ‘Hey, there’s this professor from the university on T.V.!’ And she’s like ‘His name is Helmut Norpoth.’ And I’m like ‘Oh, that’s my foreign policy teacher!’”
Norpoth has become somewhat prominent in the media. He has written columns for The Hill and Newsday recently, but he still continues to do what he loves, teach at Stony Brook. And one former student says that this newfound spotlight hasn’t changed him at all.
“He has never once mentioned it to me,” Sarah Eller, senior political science major and former teaching assistant of Norpoth, said of his national exposure. “Again, he’s an expert in his field, so I don’t think it’s something that would inflate his ego or profoundly change the way he teaches classes.”
Norpoth is still predicting a Trump victory.
Correction: Oct. 13, 2016
A previous version of this story erroneously reported the years during which Ronald Reagan held the office of president of the United States. He held office from 1981 to 1989, not 1981 to 1993.