April 23, 2004

The Case against Optimism

Posted by Ed

Jonathan Chait has an entertaining article in the current Atlantic Monthly, criticizing the country's political fixation on the sunny side of life. Candidates for office--especially conservative candidates--often compete to portray themselves as the most optimistic politician in the field, and journalists frequently repeat the cliche that the most optimistic candidate almost always wins the election, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's easier to be optimistic when you're ahead in the polls.

Chait does a very nice job refuting these claims. Here's his take on one recent study on the question:

The best-known empirical basis for the claim that optimists win elections is a study conducted by Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, with his graduate student Harold Zullow. Seligman helped create a system—called "content analysis of verbatim explanations," or CAVE—to measure the level of optimism in written or spoken statements. In 1987 he and Zullow applied CAVE to every nomination acceptance speech by a major-party candidate since 1948, masking whether the winning or the losing candidate had uttered it. The researchers found that the more optimistic candidate had won every election but one. (The exception was in 1968, when the "Happy Warrior" Hubert H. Humphrey came roaring from behind, only to lose narrowly to Richard Nixon.) They later examined the stump speeches of the 1988 primary candidates and correctly predicted that George Bush and Michael Dukakis would win their parties' nominations.

This research attracted the attention of The New York Times, which asked Seligman and Zullow to predict the winner of the general election. Analyzing the two acceptance speeches, they predicted that Dukakis would win, by six or seven percentage points. Oh, well.

I especially enjoyed his take on Robert Bartley's "optimism," and I strongly recommend this article. It would be great if journalists would investigate other cliches that dominate campaign coverage: I'm told, for example, that people are less likely to vote when the weather is nice (since they have better things to do then), contrary to the usual claim that high turnout depends on nice weather. I don't know if this is true, but I suspect that a lot of the conventional wisdom on U.S. politics is dead wrong.

Posted by Ed at April 23, 2004 04:31 PM

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