Optimists Rule!

Why? They win elections.

4 min read

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.

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).

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 low expectations."
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:

"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.

The rest is history.

Valerie Andrews has written for Vogue, Esquire, People, Intuition, and HealthScout. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.