Midterms are fast approaching, and all the candidates have at least one thing in common: they have names, many you haven’t seen before. Can the branch of linguistics that deals with names, onomastics, help us predict election results? That is, do some candidates have advantages simply because of their name?
Election research in California, North Dakota, Ohio, and other states has shown that the order of candidate names on the ballot definitely has an effect on election results. It may be small, but it is still enough to swing a tight race. To ensure a level playing field, a number of states have created specific name order processes. For example, in California, the order of names on the ballot is randomized by district.
But what about the names themselves? Do voters make choices based on the perceived ethnicity, length, sound, or cultural connotations of a candidate’s name? I was unable to find research showing causation between name and election result, but did find some intriguing correlations.
Candidate name length (in syllables)
Looking at all the presidential election results in U.S. history, you’ll see a significant preference for names with more syllables. Of the presidential elections in which the candidates’ names differed in number of syllables (44 out of 58), the candidate with more syllables in the name won 30 contests—68% of the time. I discovered this correlation on a website run by Chuck Anesi, anesi.com. (And I checked all the numbers with Wikipedia’s election results.)
Candidate name connotations
Why might longer names appeal? Mr. Anesi speculates that one-syllable names are more likely to have existing associations (good or bad) because they are often real words: Cox, Clay, Dole, Gore, Trump. Longer names enable the voter (and the campaign’s marketing group) to develop their own associations. That seems a reasonable explanation.
He also presents a somewhat less convincing theory that multisyllabic names get a boost because voters think they sound more “aristocratic” (like Roosevelt, Madison, or Harrison). Dukakis is a notable exception to the longer-name boost (he was beaten in 1988 by George H. W. Bush), and this is where perceived ethnicity may come into play. The names perceived by many voters as “aristocratic” are those of British Isles, Dutch, or German origin. In this context, the Dukakis loss makes sense, given the name’s Greek origin.
In fact, in terms of name origin, Obama and Dukakis are the only candidates with non-British/German/Dutch-origin names to make it to November, which suggests that having a name of any other origin is a challenge for candidates. (But you probably didn’t need linguistic research to tell you that.)
However, every rule has exceptions. The obvious, negative connotations of some names haven’t stopped these politicians from winning elections:
- Dick Swett (Congressman from New Hampshire 1991-95, US Ambassador to Denmark 1998–2001)
- Young Boozer (Alabama State Treasurer since 2010)
- Mike Crapo (U.S. Senator from Idaho since 1988)
- Frank Schmuck (running for Arizona Senate and serving his seventh term as Arizona Precinct Committeeman for the Republican Party)
- Janelle Lawless (Circuit Judge in Michigan since 2003)
- Robin Rape (running for Justice of the Peace; Constable for Brazoria County, Texas, 2000–2016)
- Mike Hunt (Aiken County, South Carolina, Sheriff since 2003)
How about inventing a name for the ballot?
In Los Angeles, San Francisco, and some other cities with many Chinese speakers, candidates without Chinese names must give the Department of Elections a Chinese version of their name or the ballot will include a straight transliteration. Some candidates have taken advantage of this practice by choosing names that mean “correct and fair” or “honesty and refined.”
Pronounceability of candidate names
Names that are harder to pronounce are harder to store in your mental file cabinet. According to multiple studies, easily pronounceable names give candidates a clear advantage. “Candidates with names that were hard to pronounce received, on average, 5% fewer votes than candidates with easier names,” write Mike Edwards and Danny Oppenheimer in Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well. “In fact,” they write, “so many politicians were legally changing their names to try and get an electoral advantage that in 2007 Illinois passed a law expressly designed to counter that strategy.”
Studies by psychologist Adam Alter of NYU suggest that having an easy-to-pronounce name can make us more likable. Further research indicates that name pronounceability has an impact on people’s perception of your honesty, an important attribute for an election candidate—or candidate for any job, for that matter.
However, at least at the state and local levels, names that are hard to pronounce have not always tanked a candidate’s chances. Perhaps this is because the voters can get to know the nominees in person. Just ask Rod Blagojevich (Illinois governor 2003–2009, and felon) and John Kasich (Ohio representative 1983–2001, governor 2011–present, and failed presidential candidate).
The importance of length, connotations, and associations, not to mention the positive impact of easy pronunciation in name recognition and acceptance is no surprise to Catchword. When naming a company, service, or product, always consider memorability, meaning (both intentional and unintentional), and whether the target audience can easily say the name.
Erin Milnes is Creative Director at Catchword, a trusted leader in naming with two decades of experience creating memorable and impactful names for clients worldwide.