What's In A Name?

The science behind candidates' surnames

Music moves us, touches the unconscious, makes us sway back and forth. So, too, do the names of certain political candidates.

"If you ain't got the rhythm, you're out of luck," says Grant W. Smith, an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at Eastern who has created a system to analyze the musicality of a name and how it influences voters' decisions. Some names are hard on the ear while others are soothing, and in the voting booth, far from the din of pundits and CNN, voters tend to seek comfort.

"It's all based on the theory that voters are motivated by the avoidance of danger or fear," Smith says. "The more comforting the name, the more likely people will vote for them."

Names that score highest in Smith's calculations -- which examine 20 separate variables -- tend to be those with two syllables, the first strong, the second soft. It's trochaic meter, which is common in children's rhymes (Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, for example).

"Reagan, Truman, Clinton, Lincoln ... a lot of successful presidential candidates ... Nixon, Johnson, Wilson, Cleveland ... it's a very dominant pattern in sounds and successful political names," he says.

Of all the politicos scored, the name Reagan rates highest, a 7. Clinton: 6.5. Obama: 4.5. McCain: 2. Is Smith predicting Clinton will not only win the Democratic nomination, but also the presidency?

Not exactly.

"It is not a magic wand, but it does give an advantage to a political candidate," he says. "It has a rather predictive rate."

Smith began researching the phenomenon after the 1990 election when a little-known Tacoma lawyer named Charles Johnson upset Keith Callow, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court in the primary. "His victory ... came out of nowhere," news reports said.

Smith had a hunch. Could it be the name Johnson, the nice, strong-soft rhythm? He started looking at past presidential elections and set out to measure the comfort of a name. He looked at every presidential contest since 1824, when the use of the popular vote became more common. In all but three exceptions did the candidates with best-sounding name win, says Smith.

The trend busters: Taft beating Bryan in 1908; Roosevelt defeating Landon in 1936; and George W. Bush beating Kerry in 2004. Interestingly, Smith puts an asterisk next to the Bush victory. The reason: Bush was elected in 2000, even though Gore, whose name scores higher, won the popular vote. Then, with the advantage of incumbency, Bush defeated Kerry.

"As I said, it's about being comfortable with someone and once you're in office, they are more comfort to you," he says. "This simply illustrates the basic factor that drives voter behavior."

Even so, Smith is quick to acknowledge that his formula doesn't always work. Sometimes the associations of a name outweigh its musicality. Take Hitler, for instance. Sounds good, but stained as it is with the Holocaust and all, the name wouldn't fare very well in politics. Primary elections also get tricky. McCain, for instance, scores lower than both Romney and Huckabee, but with those two drawing from similar constituents, McCain was able to emerge as the nominee.

Smith has tested his theories in some recent elections. In the 1998 congressional elections, he predicted better than 66 percent of the winners. In 2006 elections, he nailed it 68 percent of the time.

Smith usually doesn't analyze first names -- they don't seem to play much of a role -- but he scored Hillary (a 2.5) because he senses her campaign trying to brand her as Hillary first, and Clinton second.

"She's trying to emphasize her feminity with the Hillary name, but when it comes down to the voting booth, you're going to see the name Clinton," Smith says. "It's a trade off. I don't make predictions as to which tactic is better, but I do say, based upon my research, that Clinton is a more comfortable name."

Through his years of study, Smith has also concluded that negative advertising works in politics. And it will always work. "Whatever drives voter fear, any kind of discomfort works," he says.

In the end, Smith adds, he is not cynical of voters or their behavior, however arbitrary it can be sometimes.

"We are creatures of music and emotions," he says. "The idea that we are voting based on emotions is important because emotions are tied to values. Our values are necessarily rational, though.

"I just see us wanting to be feel comfortable with our politicians and leaders. ... We have to have a little faith in them and maybe they will get right it sometime."

Grant W. Smith is scheduled to give a talk about his research at 11:30 am, Thursday, March 20 at the Spokane Arena's Les Schwab Meeting Room. Tickets are $20. RSVP by this Sunday (359-4550).

Suds & Science: The Martian @ Golden Handle Brewing Co.

Sat., Feb. 4, 7-9 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Jacob H. Fries

Jacob H. Fries is the editor of the Inlander. In that position, he oversees editorial coverage of the paper and occasionally contributes his own writing. Before joining the paper, he wrote for numerous publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He grew up in Spokane Valley...