Sept. 15, 2000 -- Americans love to look at the bright side of life, a fact
politicians ignore at their peril. Dour Bob Dole, campaigning against Bill
"The Comeback Kid" Clinton, lost the presidency after he started
blaming big government for every ill. And Walter Mondale, who moaned about the
budget deficit and nuclear stockpiling, was squashed by Ronald "It's
Morning in America" Reagan.
But just how important is optimism to voters? Crucial, say psychologists at
the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. By their analysis,
Americans have picked the most optimistic candidate in all but four national
elections since 1900.
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By measuring the optimism in candidates' statements, these researchers
successfully predicted the winners of the presidential election in 1988, then
again in 1996. (They made no prediction in 1992). Now they're putting their
reputation on the line again, calling Al Gore the most optimistic major party
candidate and, therefore, the next president of the United States.
The prediction has surprised many observers, who say that George W. Bush
comes across as the most upbeat and outgoing of the two major party candidates.
"When you think of Al Gore, the first word that comes to mind isn't
optimism," says Bill Turque, a senior editor at Newsweek and author
of Inventing Al Gore. "If anything he's got an apocalyptic
But Temple psychologist David M. Fresco, PhD, says his team of forecasters
doesn't define optimism as a sunny disposition or a knack for being liked.
Instead, they rate a candidate's ability to look at complex problems and
generate workable alternatives.
"Bush is counting on his image as a warm and fuzzy candidate to carry
him, but Gore is much better at defining problems and then posing specific
solutions," says David Fresco. "That gives him the winning
Culling through stump speeches, TV spots, press conferences, and convention
speeches, Fresco selected key statements and stripped them of any identifying
clues -- such as the candidate's name and the place and date where the speech
was delivered. Independent coders then rated these statements on a scale of 3
(most optimistic) to 21 (most pessimistic).
Here are some examples analyzed from Bush's convention speech:
"Too many American children are segregated into schools without
standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of
their knowledge. This is discrimination, pure and simple, the soft bigotry of
The statement identifies the cause of a problem, but so vaguely that it's hard
to imagine a solution, so Fresco gives it a 12.
"We have seen a steady erosion of American power."
The statement implies that things are pretty bad in American, but blames the
Democrats, so Fresco gives it an 11.
Next, some examples from Gore's convention speech: