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Optimists Rule!

Why? They win elections.


"I'm not satisfied with . . . the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs."
This is a fairly clear, limited problem with at least an implied solution (lowering the cost of drugs), says Fresco, who gives it a rating of 7.33.

"The other side will not [fight for prescription drug benefits.] Their plan tells seniors to beg the HMOs and insurance companies for prescription drug coverage."
Again, Gore addresses a focused problem and implies he has the solution. Fresco gives this statement another 7.33.

(To compare the candidates' complete speeches, see Bush's Acceptance Speech and Gore's Acceptance Speech.)

Overall, Fresco's team rates Gore 9.3 and Bush 10.0. Says Fresco, "It's going to be a nail-biter, and a fairly close election, but Gore's margin is statistically significant." As close as it sounds, the difference is bigger than can be explained by chance, Fresco says. It's close to the difference between Jimmy Carter (8.05) and Gerald Ford (8.97) in 1976. Carter won that election with 50% of the popular vote to Ford's 48% (2% went to third-party candidates).

The contest between Bush and Gore certainly looks closer than the last election, in which Clinton got a pessimism rating of 9 and Dole scored 12. "Dole emerged as a real sourpuss," says Fresco, especially when focusing on character issues. "Why have so many political leaders -- and I do not exclude myself -- been failing tests [of proper conduct]?" Dole asked. On top of that, he blamed the government "for the virtual devastation of the family," while Clinton talked of ways to address the deficit.

The most polarized campaign in history was between Adlai Stevenson (12.55) and Dwight Eisenhower (8.67) in 1952. Stevenson warned in accepting the Democratic nomination that "Sacrifice, patience, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come."

By contrast, in accepting the Republican nomination, Dwight Eisenhower promised to "seek out our men in their camps and talk with them face to face about their concerns and discuss with them the great mission to which we are all committed."

Can this kind of optimism be faked by spin doctors and speech writers? Only for awhile, says Fresco. Then the candidate's true nature will emerge. (It may, however, be possible to compensate for the errors of too much pessimism -- or too much optimism. See Living on the Sunny Side.) In 1988, University of Pennsylvania researchers released their first study of optimism and the presidential campaigns. Their conclusion -- that voters want an upbeat message -- appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Afterward, Michael Dukakis rewrote his convention speech.

It was a humdinger -- recalling the heady idealism of John F. Kennedy. Yet Dukakis couldn't hold this optimistic note, and in the debates began to slip back into his native pessimism.

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