Will an optimist or a pessimist win in 2016?

Candidates, like Ted Cruz, who talk more negatively than their opponents usually lose. Unless times are bad enough for a negative message to resonate.
Candidates, like Ted Cruz, who talk more negatively than their opponents usually lose. Unless times are bad enough for a negative message to resonate. Getty Images

This campaign season, voters have a choice between two starkly different rhetorical styles.

“Americans will die.” “America is adrift. Something is clearly wrong.” “America is a hellhole, and we’re going down fast.”

These are not the chants of America’s enemies abroad but the pronouncements of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Donald Trump.

Not everyone running for the country’s top job is equally dour. Consider John Kasich’s rhetorical question in a campaign ad: “Why don’t we count our blessings for having been born in the United States of America?” Or Hillary Rodham Clinton’s assertion that “America can lead the world in the 21st century.” Or Jeb Bush’s “We’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive.”

Will an optimist or a pessimist carry the day?

Studies show that happier and more positive people are better liked, more sought out as friends and regarded as more energetic, resilient and creative. Optimistic leaders are perceived to be more effective.

In a classic study, Harold Zullow and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the party nomination acceptance speeches of presidential candidates from 22 elections, from the turn of the century (McKinley-Bryan) to 1984 (Reagan-Mondale). Widely covered by media, the Democratic and Republican convention speeches are highly informative vis-a-vis the candidate’s perspective on the state of the nation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, candidates whose speeches were sunnier and less likely to dwell on negatives were the winners in 18 out of the 22 elections. Furthermore, the more positive the candidate was relative to his opponent the wider his victory margin.

In the last election studied by Zullow and Seligman, Ronald Reagan – he of the campaign commercial that started with “It’s morning again in America” – trounced the more ruminative Walter Mondale in a landslide.

More recently, we have Bill Clinton calling for building a “bridge to the 21st century” at the 1996 convention, George W. Bush’s “Yes, America Can!” campaign slogan and Barack Obama’s ubiquitous “Yes We Can!” posters. In the last 30 years, the more positive candidate appears to have triumphed most (and perhaps all) of the time.

But what if conditions are truly bad? Let’s say the economy is tanking, violence is rising and an overwhelming majority thinks the political system is broken. Are voters any more likely to listen to pessimism? Maybe so.

Remember, there were four exceptions to Zullow and Seligman’s findings – four times the more pessimistic candidate won. One was 1968, when Richard Nixon was found to be only slightly more negative than Hubert Humphrey. The other three were the reelections of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from 1936 to 1944, which took place during the crises of the Depression and World War II. Perhaps when things are objectively miserable, delivering an optimistic message makes a candidate seem out of touch at best, and in denial or ignorant at worst. In such cases, realistic pessimism beats quixotic optimism.

What we don’t know is what objective misery entails. How bad is so bad that Americans prefer doom-and-gloom to cheerfulness?

In the words of early 20th century Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the key may be to embody “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.