From the New York Times piece on the candidates’ closing arguments, we may know everything we need to know about where this election is heading:
From Secretary Clinton:
“Tomorrow, you can vote for a hopeful, inclusive, big-hearted America,” she told a crowd in Pittsburgh.
From Donald Trump:
Mr. Trump, who campaigned in five states on Monday, took a harsher approach, assailing the “crooked media,” attacking a “corrupt Washington establishment” and mocking Mrs. Clinton over and over.
“It’s a rigged, rigged system,” he declared in Raleigh, N.C. “And now it’s up to the American people to deliver the justice that we deserve at the ballot box tomorrow.”
If history is any guide, the optimistic candidate who strives for unity is the one who tends to win in the general election. And the reason behind this may lie in the subconscious biases that inform our decision making and choices.
Richard Nixon recovered from his loss in 1960 to John Kennedy and from his loss in the 1962 gubernatorial election in California to win the Republican nomination for president in 1968. His general campaign featured calls for unity in a time of great social and political unrest. In his convention speech he struck a conciliatory tone around racial strife, one of unity and fairness (at the same time that he was promoting the Republican “Southern Strategy”): “And let us build bridges, my friends, build bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates black America from white America.” Nixon would win the election in a plurality vote, gaining 43% of the popular vote but winning handily in the Electoral College.
Jimmy Carter would represent the possibility of change at a time that the nation was deeply divided in the wake of Watergate. He would offer a positive politics that would unite a fractured nation. Carter’s approach was to tie the Ford Administration to Nixon’s failed presidency, and to offer a more positive, unifying message. His convention speech tried to maintain this balance between going negative with respect to the current administration, and promoting an optimistic message of unity. “We have been a nation adrift too long,” he would state. He would decry a lack of leadership, and the divisiveness of the Nixon Administration. “There is a fear that our best years are behind us,” Carter would point out, but add, “I say to you that our nation’s best is still ahead.” Carter would defeat Ford by two percentage points in the popular vote, and 57 votes in the Electoral College, with Ford winning more states than Carter.
The tumult of the first half of the 1970s would carry over into Carter’s single term, and his popularity would suffer as a result. His ultimate electoral demise at the hand of Ronald Reagan in 1980 can probably be traced to the summer of 1979, when he delivered the famous “malaise” speech in which he spoke of an America in decline. For communications guru Frank Luntz, the speech was a textbook example of “what not to do.” But Carter’s speech itself was not the problem: his poll numbers went up immediately thereafter. The real problem was what happened next. Carter fired his cabinet and failed to capitalize on his call for civic engagement as a way out of the malaise. In other words, he failed to offer a positive path out of the national quagmire he had described. It is okay to criticize the present, which certainly every non-incumbent candidate wants to do: otherwise, why would anyone vote for him or her. The problem for Carter, the incumbent, was a lack of a positive vision to get out of what he had identified, correctly, as a deplorable and dispiriting situation.
Carter’s opponent in the 1980 general election, by contrast, was full of optimism. Reagan talked not of a malaise, but of America as a “shining city on a hill.” When Carter attempted to paint him as an extremist in a televised debate, Reagan knocked him as being too negative, choosing a particularly poignant moment to take down Carter for his negativism by proclaiming “there you go again.”
In his own “closing argument” speech on the last day of the 1980 campaign, Reagan’s message was clear when he declared that he found “no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people.” He continued: “Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything they are sturdy and robust as they have always been.”
Four years later, when campaigning against Walter Mondale, a stridently positive message defined the campaign. His “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” ad, which became known as the “Morning in America” piece, struck a decidedly positive tone about the state of affairs in the U.S. and cast a negative light on his predecessor’s legacy.
In his recent work, British political scientist Anthony Bennett explains that voters handed Reagan a landslide victory over Mondale for a number of reasons. He included in those the strength of Reagan’s “sunny optimism” when compared to Mondale’s “coldness and aloofness.”
A few elections later, Clinton would turn the tide on Reagan’s former Vice President, who had spoken of a “thousand points of light” in winning in 1988. Apart from being able to master making connections on a personal level with voters, Clinton attempted to advance a decidedly positive, unifying message. Clinton’s convention speech would lament that the nation was divided, but that it was time to “heal America.” Clinton would deplore the “us-them” mentality: “Them, the minorities. Them, the liberals. Them, the poor. Them, the homeless. Them, the people with disabilities. Them, the gays.” He would assert, “There is no them. There is only us. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Similarly, in the election of 2000, George W. Bush was able to convey a folksy persona, one decidedly different from the one his father had portrayed. Bush’s campaign had three main components. He claimed he was going to restore honor to the White House, after the Lewinsky scandal; he was a compassionate conservative; and he was a “uniter, not a divider.” Compare his positive, unifying message to that of his opponent, who staked his campaign on a very different theme: that he was going to stand “for the people against the powerful.”
While Obama was able to best Secretary Clinton in the primary and Senator McCain in the general election in 2008 through lofty talk of hope and change, it was the Obama-Romney election of 2012, where his ability to convey optimism and unity would be tested. Indeed, the former Governor of Massachusetts could be counted on for sunny, Reaganesque statements. Polls through the middle of September had Romney surging and closing in on President Obama. Then a secretly recorded video of Romney speaking to a collection of donors surfaced. In his remarks he made his now infamous and divisive comments about the “47 Percent”, ones that struck a decidedly “non-unifying” tone, but were also particular negative.
Ironically, although Romney says in the video that he has to pull in some independent voters who are not in the “47%” in order to defeat Obama, and the statement may not have had much of an effect on voters who had already made up their minds as to who would win their votes, a poll taken by Gallup after the video was released showed that among independent voters who may have been swayed by the video, such voters were more than twice as likely to vote against Romney because of these statements as those who were inclined to vote for him because of them.
This quick overview of campaign rhetoric over the last fifty years helps to shed some light on the types of messages that seem to have resonated with the American people for the last half century. A more scientific analysis of a similar time period yielded similar results. In Campaign Talk: Why Elections are Good for Us, Roderick Hart analyzed campaign language used in presidential elections from 1948 through 1996. Hart broke down the language used by politicians, reporters and the public in speeches, the media and in such formats as letters-to-the-editor in newspapers. The analysis yielded results that were not surprising: candidates who were optimistic in their rhetoric and used inclusive language that emphasized community and cooperation were more successful in their campaigns than those who were negative and emphasized division. Hart identified a strong example of this phenomenon as the difference between President Clinton and his opponent Senator Dole in Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid. In these speeches, Clinton emphasized “neighborhoods, fellow, children, home and parents,” and Dole used words like “administration, congress, party, policy, compromise and unions.”
Behavioral science tells us that two biases—optimism bias and confirmation bias—may be at play when talking about what makes optimistic, positive messages stick and catch on. Optimism Bias is one of the biases many humans seem to possess. We presume that bad things will happen to others and not ourselves, and the future looks rosier than the present or the past. While there are certainly individual, cultural and national differences that tend to influence the degree to which a particular person may be optimistic, study after study tends to show that the human condition may, generally, be an optimistic one. This is particularly true where we think we may have control over a particular outcome, or we can create social distance between ourselves and a person we may deem as more stereotypically likely to have something happen to him or her.
Confirmation Bias is the term used to describe the phenomenon through which individuals tend to accept information that confirms previous beliefs as opposed to that which might challenge them. We also seek out sources of information that play to our confirmation bias. It is no secret that individuals from different political perspectives tend to gravitate towards sources of information that confirm their pre-conceived notions. Liberals turn to Rachel Maddow and MSNBC and conservatives to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
According to Emory University psychologist Drew Westen: [The] brain gravitates toward solutions designed to match not only data but desire, by spreading activation to networks that lead to conclusions associated with positive emotions and inhibiting networks that would lead to negative emotions…Positive and negative feelings influence which arguments reach consciousness, the amount of time we spend thinking about different arguments, the extent to which we either accept or search for ‘holes’ in arguments or evidence that is emotionally threatening, the news outlets we follow, and the company we keep.” As a result, “our brains have a remarkable capacity to find their way toward convenient truths—even if they’re not all that true.”
Based on these two biases, humans are generally an optimistic bunch, and when we hear optimistic messages, we tend to confirm our pre-existing tendency towards optimism. Is it then any surprise that optimistic messages, ones that stress unity and hope for the future, are those that, history as shown, are the ones that might generally attract wider support than those based on division and negativity?
Secretary Clinton promoted “Stronger Together” as a rallying cry for her campaign. The otherwise divisive Donald Trump used his “Make America Great Again” slogan to attempt to capture a somewhat positive, optimistic message, one that threads the needle between criticizing the present and conveying a message of optimism for the future. His closing arguments, however, failed to convey that same optimism and the results today may just prove this different approach fatal to his campaign.