Bryan Caplan  

Political Mood Cycles

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My casual observation of American politics suggests that national political mood follows a four-year cycle that syncs with the presidential electoral cycle.  Here's how I see the cycle running:

Election Year: Strident
Inauguration Year: Hopeful
Second Year: Disappointed
Third Year: Bored

and then back to...

Election Year: Strident


1. Does my casual empirical match yours?

2. What are some plausible empirical tests of my political mood cycle theory?

3. Do other countries with four-year executive terms show the same pattern? 

4. What about countries that don't have four-year executive terms?

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
TA writes:

This is really boring. I mean, really, really boring.

NFB writes:

I'd agree, that seems pretty accurate. There are some minor mutations to that pattern -- during the Bush years, stridency hung around a bit longer (especially from the left) and disappointment was a lingering theme. I'm too young to speak to the Clinton administration, but I'm not sure "hope" even got off the starting block.

I think the pattern accelerates during second terms, because cynicism magnifies all of the above.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Here is a data point (my political mood cycle):

Election Year: Annoyed
Inauguration Year: Bored
Second Year: Bored
Third Year: Bored

Glen writes:

I mostly agree, but I think second year ("disappointed") depends a bit more on ideology. For the ideologically committed, "defensive" seems more accurate.

agnostic writes:

To test whether 3rd-year boredom happens, you can search the NYT (say) and see if the fraction of articles containing some politically relevant word falls noticeably during the third year.

To reduce measurement error, you'd probably want to make it a list of terms, like President X, Democrats, Republicans, government, policy, etc. Words that show people are at least talking about politics, regardless of how they feel, rather than zoning out altogether.

There could be other ways of checking, but 3rd-year boredom is the easiest to test because you're talking about something crude like the volume of conversation, not the subtler aspects of what the meaning of it all is.

Jacob writes:

1. It depends on
a) the political context. JFK's third year was far from boring. Our third year of Bush was also very exciting.
b) your political orientation. For many Republicans, Obama's first year was far from hopeful. For many Democrats, neither was Bush's (second) first.
c) whether we're talking about an incumbent election. Many incumbent elections are not exactly strident (see Coolidge, Calvin).

2. agnostic's comment makes a lot of sense, but don't search the NYT--just look at what people are searching on Google.

3. I don't know...

4. My (somewhat educated) guess is that your casual cycle is the same in countries with longer term limits, with each extra year contributing to further boredom. The reverse is probably true for shorter terms, i.e. there is no time to be bored, extra reason to be strident, and hope and disappointment are more constant than cyclical.

agnostic writes:

I would do something similar then for the first 3 points. Instead of looking at all NYT articles, though, I'd only look at ones that had some political content -- to find these, use the terms in the index I proposed earlier with a bunch of "OR"s, or just pick the most frequent one.

E.g., search the NYT for "Democrats." This gives an OK approx. for the # of all politically focused articles.

Then add to "Democrats" another word, or list of words, that would capture each of the moods. For strident, perhaps the extra words would be "stupid," "blind," etc. Similarly for hopeful and disappointed. Simply divide the # of articles with the more restricted words (and "Democrats") by the # of articles with only "Democrats." This says roughly what fraction of politically focused articles had a strident word in them (or hopeful or disappointed).

This gives you three indices to track over time. Your prediction is that the stridency index will peak in an election year, that the hopefulness one will peak in the inaugural, and the disappointedness one will peak in the second year.

bjk writes:

Year three tends to be the big gainer in presidential cycles . . . the year of boredom, according to BC.

. One study used the S&P 500 and the time period from 1952 to 2003. The results were that the average annual total return for the market has been about 6 percent in year one of the presidential cycle (that is, the first post-election year), 8 percent in year two, 23 percent in year three (the pre-election year), and 11 percent in year four. Returns from the most recently completed cycle just about matched those numbers: year three (2003) produced a gain (in the S&P) of 26 percent and year four (2004) produced 9 percent.

Another study covered the years 1889 through 2005, also using the S&P 500 (and its predecessors) as the proxy for the market. Its conclusions were that returns were about 3 percent in year one, 3 percent in year two, 11 percent in year three, and 8 percent in year four.

Jacob writes:

agnostic: Yes, that would probably give you a good idea of the political mood, but why limit data collection to the NYT? Why exclude every other media publication, people's personal websites, and almost all of the blogosphere? A Google search would include the NYT, but also every other source of data on the nation's political mood.

agnostic writes:

The NYT archives online go all the way back to its beginning in the early 1850s. Google Trends doesn't even go back to 2000.

And anyway, the NYT has to compete for readership among people who are likely to think about politics, so it will reflect the audience's desires for topics of conversation.

Vlad writes:

that's for the winners, for the losers is probably more like:

Election Year: Strident
Inauguration Year: Disappointed
Second Year: Bored
Third Year: Hopeful

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