Stand By for an Election Night(mare) Analysis


In the wee morning hours of Nov. 8, 2000, a California student is eating chips as she watches election returns on TV in her room. Newscasters report Al Gore is winning. Suddenly, George W. Bush appears and steals her bag of chips.

In Massachusetts, a 35-year-old teacher can't get away from electoral maps. They flash red, then blue, then red again. All night long.

Elsewhere, ordinary people are tormented by cars veering off the road, conquering aliens, or clock radios that keep broadcasting the wrong election results even when the listeners argue back.

Election 2000 was a nightmare all right. And not just for Gore and the vote counters. Many voters fell prey to unusually distressing dreams, according to a new survey from California dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley, who has been collecting presidential election dreams since 1992.

Troubling election-related dreams persisted throughout the uncertainties of the following months. However, election night itself was perhaps "the single most troubled night's sleep in our country's history," he said.

Most of the 100 or so dreams he analyzed were from Democrats. Their anxiety might not seem too surprising, except that in a separate study Bulkeley found that Republicans in general have more nightmares than Democrats. And the conservatives' nightmares are much scarier.

Bulkeley, an adjunct lecturer in religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and Santa Clara University, is the first to admit that his election dream analysis isn't the most scientific of samplings. To find the dreams, he cast a wide net, asking for contributions from Internet users, members of dream research groups, his friends and students. Some people contacted him because of the publicity his previous research had received. "People know, if you have a dream, call Kelly," he said.

He is scheduled to present the results of the survey and his more formal study of conservatives' and liberals' dreams Wednesday at the 17th annual convention of the Assn. for the Study of Dreams, an eclectic international organization that draws physicians as well as shamanic healers, at UC Santa Cruz.

Bulkeley is believed to be the only person researching political dreams or dreams of political groups. However, theorists from different fields might interpret his findings differently.

While Freudians and Jungians would argue these dreams simply use political images to symbolize personal meanings, Bulkeley said sometimes political dreams are really just about politics and the dreamer's outer life. A dream about Bill Clinton, for instance, probably does say something about how one feels about one's father, but it also could say something about how one feels about Bill Clinton.

Last year's dreams were more nightmarish than those surrounding the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, he added. "The dreams were a very clear reflection of deeper emotional distress."

During the Florida vote recounting phase, a 36-year-old Michigan woman reported a dream about ballots. "I was involved in a discussion on chads--what were the differences of pregnant, dimpled, hanging types," she told Bulkeley. "We were also discussing which ones should be counted as a vote. This dream looped over and over again for most of the night."

One man had a dream of Bush and Gore as pit bulls going at one another while Ralph Nader walked off into the sunset. Another dreamed of two king vampires battling for "ownership of the human herd."

As the Supreme Court decision neared, a 36-year-old California lawyer had a scary dream in which she was threatened by a stormy and choppy sea on a Florida beach. In the water, close to shore, she saw a small, black mako shark. Bulkeley interpreted that to mean she felt in personal danger from the events in Florida.

Some had "wish fulfillment" and "closure" dreams, he said. Several reported dreams that Gore had won or that Bush didn't really want to be president anyway. A New York actress dreamed she saw an exhausted and disheveled Gore crying on a busy city street. In the dream, Tipper takes his hand and pulls him down the street. Wanting to console him, the dreamer asks Tipper if he wants anything to eat or drink. Tipper replies, "No, sweetheart, that's OK," and pulls him into quiet place where he can lick his wounds in private.

"That was a touching dream, I thought," Bulkeley said.

After Bush won, Bulkeley observed a sharp drop-off in the election-related dreams. Unlike dreams in 1993, when people had lots of dreams about the newly elected Clinton, there were no "dreams of W," said Bulkeley. Most "dreams of Bill" involved intimacy and closeness. Often he was dressed in casual clothes, hanging out at parties, sitting with them on a park bench. Some were romantic. The dreams dwindled after the Lewinsky affair and his other troubles.

It may be that Clinton had more charisma and personal appeal than Bush, Bulkeley said. It could also be that people on the political right may dream less or talk less about their dreams, he said.

In a separate study that analyzed dream reports of 56 college students nationwide over the last four years, Bulkeley found striking contrasts between liberals and conservatives.

People on the left had more family members in their dreams, more friendly social interactions, and imagined more bizarre images. People on the right had more friends than family members in their dreams and initiated more aggressive acts. They had more misfortunes and dreamed more about everyday scenarios, such as sitting at a friend's house or watching TV.

"The most prominent finding among this set of dreams was that people on the right had a lot more nightmares," Bulkeley said. "And the nightmares of people on the right were more nightmarish." Their nightmares had more physical danger, fear and helplessness, he said. In the liberals' nightmares, he said, there was usually still an element of hope and power.

The reports were equally divided among liberals and conservatives, men and women, he said.

The liberal men had girlfriends in their dreams, the conservative men had none, he said. The dreams of women from the left and the right appeared quite similar.

Sounding like a practiced politician, Bulkeley said, "There are two ways of thinking about this.... One is, perhaps the people on the right are more realistic, more aware of the dangers in life, the frailties of human existence and are more interested perhaps in protecting the good things in the here and now. Maybe then the people on the left are really naive and spaced out and caught up in their own fantasies.

"Or you could say the people on the left are more imaginative and more creative. The people on the right may be uptight, anxious, repressed, paralyzed by their own fears of the world."

Either way, he said, it makes sense that conservatives would be attracted to a party that champions traditional values and a strong defense and that liberals would be attracted to causes of civil rights, environmental concerns and universal health care.

But then Bulkeley admitted, "I'm way out there with that." His thoughts are mere speculations, he said. "Nothing more."

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