Friday, November 07, 2008

The Real Winner of the 2008 Election: Optimism

I wanted to do this post before the election, but time did not allow. But it's just as relevant now as before, with all the bickering going on as to why McCain lost the contest. Perhaps the better question is, why did Obama win?

Years ago I read a book called ""Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life" by Martin Seligman. Chapter 11 on the book, "Politics, Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory" had a section that dealt with a study of the American Presidential elections, since 1900 up to 1988. Using a methodology to analyze speeches for optimistic/pessimistic content, they found patterns in that content and the resulting wins and losses. Out of 22 elections, 18 of them were won by the most optimistic candidate (the exceptions were believed to have mitigating factors, discussed in the book).

In 1988, the researchers decided to apply this methodology of speech analysis to see if they could predict an election based on the optimism content of the speeches.

Their predictions worked for the primaries in both parties, accurately predicting not only the winners but also the order of the follow up contenders.

It was reported on in the NY Times. Both parties got wind of this, and requested the data. It was shared with them, in the belief that they probably wouldn't take it seriously anyway. But surprisingly, Dukakis's acceptance speech at the DNC reflected a huge increase in optimism, and sent him soaring in the polls. It was rumored that Theodore Sorenson - the great speechwriter for John F. Kennedy - had been exhumed to draft it.

If Dukakis had kept the optimism up, it might have made a difference. But it seems his acceptance speech was not the real Dukakis. The rest of his speeches throughout the fall reverted back to his former style, which was not as optimistic as his opponent's. Analysis of the speeches showed that George Bush would win, and he did.

An analysis was done for this year's election as well. This article appeared Oct. 1st, and was written with about six weeks left to go till Nov. 4th:

Optimism Experts Handicap the Presidential Election With About Six Weeks Remaining Until Nov. 4
October 1, 2008

By: Office of University Communications

PHILADELPHIA –- With less than six weeks until the general election, a University of Pennsylvania study analyzing the relative optimism of the 2008 presidential and vice presidential candidates has found Barack Obama and John McCain to be equally optimistic and Sarah Palin slightly more optimistic than Joseph Biden.

Researchers have determined that the most optimistic candidates win more than 80 percent of presidential elections dating back to 1900. How optimism confers this electoral advantage is unclear, but Penn psychologists believe optimistic candidates inspire hope in the electorate and try harder, particularly when faced with a challenge.

The study, conducted by researchers from Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, analyzed speeches given at the Saddleback Forum on Faith and the candidates’ respective convention acceptance speeches to determine levels of optimism.

“Although our initial report suggests this election is too close to call, shifts in optimism and rhetoric over the next few weeks may very well predict which side emerges as the victor,” Stephen Schueller, lead analyst on the project and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Penn, said.

As a group, the vice-presidential candidates are less optimistic than the presidential candidates, with Biden by far the most pessimistic of the four.

In addition, Republican candidates, according to the study, show a higher level of internality when explaining positive events and a lower level of internality when explaining negative events. Put simply, they accept credit for good events and blame others as the cause for negative outcomes.

While speeches analyzed for the study were scripted, more instances of impromptu speech — such as the debates — can provide additional material to look for shifts and changes in optimism as the election draws.

“With news of the national economic crisis, the upcoming weeks will provide further material to draw from because attributions about economic matters offer a rich source of data,” Andrew Rosenthal, project coordinator with the Positive Psychology Center, said. [...]

I was not able to find a follow up to this study. It seems that up to this point Obama and McCain were neck to neck on the optimism score. But with the financial crisis breaking just then, and the Republican Base pressuring McCain to attack Obama more forcefully, I can only wonder if either of those may have altered the optimism dynamics in Obama's favor? It would be interesting to see, if they publish the remainder of their analysis.

Related Links:

Why Obama was elected

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