2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain

In early 2008 Toronto novelist Sheila Heti initiated a website of people’s dreams of the two Democratic Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Soon thereafter she added dreams of Republican candidate John McCain.   (www.metaphysicalpoll.com)

I’ve written three commentaries on these dreams: the first two originally appearing on the “Beacon Broadside” author’s blog  (http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/04/unravelling-mea.html) and the third appearing on the www.metaphysicalpoll.com website.  The full text of all three is below.

Dreaming of Barack and Hillary (and John)

At the conclusion of a recent New Yorker story (3-10-08) about her new website posting people’s dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti said, “I sort of hope that the campaign managers will change the way candidates give speeches as a result of people’s dream lives.  It must be telling them something.”

These dreams do have the potential to reveal meaningful facets of people’s political beliefs.  The frequency and intensity of a politician’s appearance in people’s dreams can be taken as an accurate index of his or her personal charisma.  The more people dream of a politician, the more likely that politician has made a deep emotional impact on them (both positively and negatively—Heti’s website has instances of both).

In 1992, when I first studied dreams of politicians during that year’s Presidential election, I heard numerous dreams of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and almost none of George H.W. Bush—no doubt where the charisma lay in that contest! As of today, Heti’s website contains 57 dreams of Obama, 49 of Hillary, and 2 of John McCain (to be fair, the space for McCain dreams was just created).  Now as then, the dreams offer a mix of the bizarre and the trivial, the profound and the absurd, the personally idiosyncratic and the socially relevant.  From a research perspective, the value of Heti’s website is that it provides further evidence that people dream not only about their private lives but also about public affairs like political contests.  Dreaming is not purely inward-looking; it also has the capacity to look outwards and express our feelings about the major concerns, conflicts, and challenges of our communities.

It should be noted that these kinds of anecdotal reports are limited in many ways.  The website offers almost no other information about the dreamer beyond the dream itself.  There are no additional associations from the dreamer about what the dream might mean to him or her, and no waking life context or background details.  The reports come from people in many different countries, and of course we can never be sure they aren’t just making up their dreams entirely (perhaps to put their favored candidate in a better light, or to cast aspersions on the candidate they want to lose).

With those caveats in mind, it can still be fun and potentially illuminating to ponder individual dreams like these:

“I was at a sweet country inn, the type of bed and breakfast that you would escape to for a romantic weekend. It could have been in upstate New York, or maybe New Hampshire. The inn was right next to a lake. A woman came down the stairs in a red bathing suit. She was magnetic, and everyone was staring at her. She carried herself so well in that bathing suit, even though her figure was not that of a supermodel. I admired her as well, and realized that I was having a little girl crush on Hillary, the lady in the bathing suit. However, I told my friends at the inn that I wasn’t going to vote for the dazzling senator.

”My friends were aghast. You mean, they said, that you won’t vote for your own Mother!”

(42-year old mother in Santa Monica, March 11)

“I was in a smoky, hazy hotel office/suite with Barack Obama. We had driven back together from a big rally and speech. He walked ahead of me and was dismissive, or maybe just distracted. I wasn’t sure whether he’d already won the presidency or was still just a candidate. I was acting as one of his assistants.

”I’d been respectfully carrying his coat and now I lay it on the bed. When I tried to engage him in some light banter about how he felt about the rally, he seemed distracted and annoyed. I was struck that in private, behind closed doors, he was a different man: cordial enough, certainly not mean-spirited, but his tone in private was nothing like his public persona.

”He reached for a pack of cigarettes, though the room was already smoky enough.”

(Tech start-up geek from California, March 10)

The best way to interpret these kinds of reports is to:

  1. keep it light (they’re dreams, after all!)
  2. be careful not to read too much into them, and
  3. use some of the basic methods of content analysis to highlight possible patterns of meaning.

I’m experimenting with different methods of analysis to study these dreams, and I’ll share my findings on this website over the next few of weeks.

Hopes and Warnings

Here are some of the questions I’ve heard people asking about these intriguing political fables from the nocturnal imagination.

Can we accept these as real dreams?
Cautiously, yes.  Some of the reports could easily be fake, but most sound genuine to me.

Why are so many people having dreams of Hillary and Barack?
It’s turning into a perfect storm of political dreaming.  First, the core supporters of both candidates (older white women for Hillary, multicultural youth for Barack) tend to be especially active dreamers—they are exactly the kinds of people who show up most often in dream classes and workshops, and I think it’s natural their political hopes and fears would find expression in their dreams.  Second, many Democrats are genuinely torn in both directions, and one thing we know from modern dream research is that people often experience an upsurge of dreaming during times of uncertainty and indecision.  And third, the feverish campaign coverage by the 24-hour news media has prompted unusually intense feelings of familiarity and intimacy with the candidates’ personal lives, to the point where we hear and think and talk about them almost non-stop.  In this kind of cultural environment, it would be surprising if we did not find at least some people dreaming about these omnipresent figures in the public eye.

So what exactly can we learn from these dreams?
Without a doubt, the Hillary and Barack dreams highlight the powerful interpersonal bonds each candidate has formed with his or her supporters.  There’s a good psychological reason why the electoral race is so close—both candidates are backed by passionately committed people whose dreams accurately reflect the emotional depths of their political convictions.  Here’s one of the positive Hillary dreams:

“Hillary Clinton and I were cleaning my parents’ attic. She was actually a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by “A Wife And Mother Who Scrapbooks”)

This is a neat little parable of Hillary’s candidacy—she’s more likeable than you might expect, and she’s going to work hard to clean up the mess left by the previous administration.

More surprising, perhaps, is how the dreams also point to the personality flaws and psychological shadows of the candidates.  For Hillary, this appears in dreams of her behaving angrily and aggressively.  An example:

“I was Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant and I was miserable, partially because we were working non-stop on little sleep, but also because she was a tyrant. It was about three in the morning after a rally. She yelled at me in front of a group of people for a small mix-up I had nothing to do with.”

(Posted on Feb. 25 by “A Woman Who Once Worked As An Assistant”)

In at least six reports, the dreamer does not like or support Hillary but feels compelled to lie to her about it:

“I was at a Kmart and Hillary was speaking to a small crowd. I began feeling really sorry for her and hugged her. Hillary asked me if I had voted for her. I hesitated and then said Yes, even though I hadn’t.”

(Posted on Feb. 27 by “A Middle-Aged Woman”)

Dreams like these suggest a perception of Hillary Clinton as strong and powerful but prone to using coercion and emotional manipulation to get her way.

The positive dreams of Barack are more numerous and more intense than those of Hillary, with what appears to be a higher percentage of good fortunes and magical events:

“I had such a great dream last night. Barack Obama came to my church and gave a speech. I don’t remember what he said, just that he was very eloquent. Afterwards he and his wife were standing near the doors, shaking hands. I went up to shake his hand and I was so nervous! He was like 8 feet tall in my dream, but when I reached out to take his hand he gave me the sweetest smile.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by a “Unitarian Universalist and Mom”)

The negative dreams of Barack point to the flip side of this giddy idealization: the potential for disappointment.  Quite a few of the Barack dreams leave the dreamer feeling unhappy, detached, and disillusioned—they want to stay close to him, they love being part of his wonderful movement, but they fear it can’t last:

“…He had been very nice to me on the run, when I felt I had him to myself, but then he became more interested in what was going on in the room and he ignored me. I felt hurt because of this and started to write him off, feeling that he wasn’t who he said he was….”

(Posted Feb. 28 by “A Student of Rhetoric in Louisiana”)

The warning that comes through in these dreams is that the higher the hopes you inspire, the more likely you are to disappoint those who have idealized your candidacy.

I’m still working on a more systematic evaluation of the dreams using word search and content analysis methods, and I’ll report on my findings as they emerge.  In the next posting I’ll take a look at the more salacious aspects of the dreams—Sex! Drugs! Violent death!  Celebrity cameos!—all the topics that give dreams such a good, wholesome reputation.

Wait a minute—Do you have some kind of political bias that’s influencing your interpretations?
Who do you support between Hillary and Barack?  I was raised in a Republican family and became a Libertarian in college; I’m now a registered Democrat with Green Party leanings, and a strong Obama supporter.  I don’t claim any special objectivity in my analysis of the dream reports, but I’m confident of my findings and I invite others to take a look at the dreams for themselves.  Every dream has multiple dimensions of meaning, and if you see something I’ve missed, feel free to tell me about it.

Downtrodden Hillary, Mystical Barack: An Analysis of the First 100 Dreams

People’s dreams of Hillary Clinton frequently show her as friendly and likeable, with an admirable willingness to help others.  But compared to dreams of Barack Obama, the Hillary dreams are darker and more negative.  They include more aggression than the Barack dreams and more emotions of fear, confusion, and sadness.  The Barack dreams have some negative elements, too, but they have an almost equally high number of friendly interactions and many more happy emotions and lucky/magical events—the very qualities I’ve found in previous research to define “mystical” dreams.

Before explaining these findings in more detail, I’d like to thank Sheila Heti for creating this excellent dream collection.  Her website offers a unique public forum for discussing dreams, and the dream reports themselves provide wonderful raw material for thinking about the political psychology of the 2008 U.S. Presidential race.  The fact that Sheila is Canadian adds an ironic twist to these quirky commentaries on the American political process.

The total number of Hillary and Barack dreams has just passed 100 for each candidate, and I believe that’s a minimal threshold number for identifying significant patterns in dream content.  In looking at anecdotal reports like these, it’s risky to focus too much attention on single dreams because we don’t have enough information from the individuals to confirm our interpretive hunches.  But if we look at a large number of dreams, broad patterns start to emerge that can be compared to other sources of dream research, giving us an empirical foundation for making inferences about what may or may not be going on in terms of meaning and significance.  (For more on research methods, see the note below.)

This analysis is still a work in progress.  So far I’ve noticed several themes and patterns that certainly appear to connect the first 100 dreams with prominent features of each candidate’s campaign activities and public persona.  That’s ultimately what makes these dreams so interesting: they reflect the passionate personal engagement many people feel towards Hillary and Barack, and they tell us what aspects of the campaign are making a particularly strong impact on the public imagination.

These are some of the content patterns I find most intriguing:

Friendliness: Both sets of dreams have an unusually high frequency of friendly social interactions.  Seventy six of the Barack dreams include at least one friendly act, as do eighty of the Hillary dreams (compared to 40% of the 1000 dreams gathered by Hall and Van de Castle, 1966; HVDC after this).  The most common theme in all these dreams is the dreamer and the candidate engaged in some kind of friendly behavior—hanging out together, talking, playing games, helping each other with problems.  This seems like an accurate indication of the psychological depth of support enjoyed by both candidates.

Aggression: Aggressive interactions, both physical and verbal, appear in 53 of the Hillary dreams and 39 of the Barack dreams (compared to 46% of the HVDC dreams).  Sixteen of the Hillary dreams and nine of the Barack dreams include some kind of physical aggression; Barack is the mostly the victim of physical aggression, while Hillary is equally its victim and instigator.  These frequencies suggest the perception of vulnerability and/or lack of aggressiveness in Barack and a confirmation of Hillary’s campaign claims to be a fighter, though not always in ways the dreamer appreciates.

Emotions. This is an especially difficult aspect of dream content to measure.  I use the HVDC system of five emotions (fear, anger, sadness, confusion, happiness) which, while not perfect, at least allows researchers a quick way of surveying the emotional terrain of a large set of dreams.  Analyzed in these terms, the most frequent emotions in the Hillary dreams are fear (34) and confusion (34), followed by happiness (23), sadness (16), and anger (15).  For Barack, the most frequent emotion is happiness (35), then confusion (28), fear (20), anger (16), and sadness (9).  When compared to the HVDC dreams, what stands out is the high happiness and low fear in the Barack dreams and the high confusion in the Hillary dreams.  No one would deny, I think, that Hillary’s campaign has been surprised by Obama’s rise and unsure of how to regain her once formidable lead.  Nor could anyone who’s attended an Obama rally dispute the idea that he’s trying to banish people’s fears and stimulate their hopes.  Perhaps one could say the Barack dreamers are too happy and not scared enough—that’s a charge made by his “realist” critics.

Good fortunes: A “good fortune,” in terms of content analysis, is anything magical or unusually beneficial that happens to a character.  Seven of the Hillary dreams have some kind of good fortune, a slightly lower proportion than the 12% in the HVDC dreams.  Nineteen of the Barack dreams include a good fortune, a relatively high number that seems plausibly related to his aura of extraordinary potential and transformative power.  It could also, following Bill Clinton, reflect an association between Barack and the “fairy tale” qualities of his candidacy.

Sexual dreams: There are 11 dreams with at least one sexual interaction in the Hillary set and 9 in the dreams of Barack, which seems about average to me.  All but one of the Barack sexual dreams involve him and the dreamer, and I suspect these dreams symbolize the intimate sense of personal connection his supporters feel with him.  Nearly half the sexual activities in the Hillary dreams do not involve her directly, but rather her husband Bill.  No surprise there—public perception of Hillary is still dogged by memories of Bill’s sexual misbehavior.

Shadows: The dreams also reveal the flaws and weaknesses people perceive in the two candidates.  In several of the Hillary dreams the dreamer feels compelled to lie to Hillary, to hide from her the dreamer’s true feelings, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of pity.  This can’t be a good sign of the trust and honesty people feel in relation to her campaign.  With Barack, people’s fears revolve around his failure to live up to their expectations; in some dreams he disappoints them, leaving the dreamer feeling deflated and alone.  The soaring idealization of Barack’s candidacy carries the risk of precipitous disillusionment as he attempts to make real the mystical aspirations of his supporters.

Note: I mentioned findings from two of my earlier articles: on mystical dreams, “Sacred Sleep: Scientific Contributions to the Study of Religiously Significant Dreaming,” in The New Science of Dreaming, edited by Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara (Praeger, 2007); on good fortunes, “Revision of the Good Fortunes Scale: A New Tool for the Study of “Big” Dreams,” Dreaming (2006) 16.1:11-21.  I’ve written two earlier commentaries on the Hillary and Barack dreams on the Beacon Press author’s blog, where I say more about the limits of this kind of data and my own personal biases in studying these dreams.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term.

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next.

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]