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 streak."
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 edge."
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).