Why did Obama win? Optimism

Hope sign against blue sky

Hope was more than just a buzzword this election cycle.

It may have also been the key to President-elect Barack Obama’s November victory.

That’s because it turns out people tend to vote for the more hopeful and optimistic candidate in presidential elections, according to the Study on Optimism in the 2008 Presidential Election, produced this fall by Penn’s Positive Psychology Center. In fact, from 1900 through the 1980s, the Center reports, the optimistic presidential candidate has won 80 percent of the time. The only exceptions have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his three reelection bids, and Richard Nixon.

In the 2008 race, Penn researchers analyzed speeches given by both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain during the final months of the presidential campaign, the three debates between the two politicians and the discussion in mid-August about faith at Saddleback Church. Researchers combed through all of these texts to code and rate all instances of causal language for negative or positive connotations.
The result?

“It was very, very close,” says Stephen Schueller, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology who helped lead the study. But by the end of the third debate on Oct. 15, Schueller says, Obama was clearly becoming more positive than McCain.

The researchers were trained to analyze language using the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations, or CAVE, an analysis tool created by the Positive Psychology Center. “It came out of research [Martin Seligman, director of the Center] did in the clinical field a long time ago that found that depressed individuals tend to have a different way of describing [things] than non-depressed individuals,” Schueller says.

For example, Schueller says, a depressed student who failed a test might say, “I failed because I was stupid.” An optimistic person, on the other hand, might say, “I failed that test because the teacher made the test too hard.”

As for why Americans tend to vote for more hopeful candidates? Well, there are two hypotheses on that, Schueller says. And the first one has more to do with personality than “hopefulness.”

To make his point, Schueller describes an experiment once run by Seligman on a swim team in which he gave the swimmers false negative feedback after a meet, telling them they swam three seconds slower than they actually did. In the next race, the more optimistic swimmers turned in better times, while pessimistic swimmers slowed down.

The takeaway message, in other words, is that optimistic people tend to keep pushing when faced with failure or adversity. This is much like Obama, who campaigned even feverishly during the last few weeks of the campaign. McCain, meanwhile, began pulling money and staffers out of states like Michigan, where polls showed him lagging behind, and started making fewer campaign stops on the weekends. “What we’re doing there is not picking up on some aspect of the message,” says Schueller, “but figuring out some personality of the candidates.”

The second hypothesis is a bit more simple: A message of hope simply resonates with many people. “People like people who are optimistic. They want someone who is talking more optimistically about the future,” says Schueller.

In the future, Schueller says the Center hopes to explore how a hopeful election will affect the ways in which people talk about weather, sports and other non-election-related topics. The researchers hope to find out if political optimism is actually contagious.

“It’s interesting to think about that when we have Obama coming into office,” says Schueller. “[This period is] a very low point for the American population. A lot of people are worried about the economy, with good reason.”

Originally published on December 4, 2008