The Politics of Names – Onomastics and Elections, part 1

By Erin Milnes

November 4, 2016

trump__clintonOnomastics is the branch of linguistics that deals with names. (Yes, “onomastics” — slip that one into your next cocktail party conversation!) But the influence of names in the political arena has an effect far beyond that of linguistic observation.

Studies of elections in California, North Dakota, Ohio, and other states have shown definitively that the order of candidate names on the ballot has an impact on election results – a small effect but one potentially greater than the margin of victory in some tight races. As a result, some states have developed methods to select candidate order fairly. California, for example, randomizes order by district.

But what about the candidate’s name itself? Its sound, ethnicity, length, associations in the minds of voters? I was unable to find research to show unequivocal causation between name and outcome, but I did find some interesting correlations.

Candidate name length (in syllables)
If we take a look at presidential election results since the country was founded, we find a striking preference for longer names. Of all the presidential elections in which the candidates’ names differed in number of syllables (42 of them), the candidate with more syllables in his name won 29 times — 69% of the time. That number is striking but could be coincidence. (I discovered this correlation on anesi.com, a site I know nothing about other than Mr. Anesi finds some interesting trends. His data was a little off, so I confirmed the numbers above via Wikipedia’s election results.) Why might longer names appeal?

Candidate name connotations
Anesi argues that one-syllable names are more likely to carry existing associations (good or bad) because they are often real words: Dole, Gore, Cox, Clay, Trump. Multi-syllabic names leave the voter (and the candidate’s campaign team) free to create associations. These names are empty vessels, ready to be filled. Sounds like a good theory.

Somewhat less convincing is Anesi’s theory that multi-syllabic names get a bump because they are generally considered more aristocratic in sound – Clinton, Roosevelt, Wilson. (However, this difference would not come into play in the races where a three-syllable name defeated a two-syllable name.)

Note that Dukakis is a glaring exception to the multi-syllabic bump (1988 defeat to George H. W. Bush). One might argue that the aristocratic association of his longer name is lost because of its Greekness. Before Barack Obama, no other presidential candidate had carried a non-British Isles, German, or Dutch name.

In fact, Obama and Dukakis are the only candidates with ‘ethnic’-sounding names to make it past the primary, which certainly suggests that such names are a disadvantage for presidential candidates. (But we probably didn’t need a linguist to figure that out.)

How about inventing a name for the ballot?
In San Francisco, Los Angeles, and some other municipalities with a large Chinese-speaking electorate, candidates must provide Chinese versions of their name for the ballot or the Department of Elections will provide a straightforward transliteration. Candidates for Board of Supervisors use this to their advantage by choosing names that translate to “honesty and refined,” for example, or “correct and fair.”

Perhaps a candidate’s positioning begins not with a platform but with their own name. So far we at Catchword have not been asked to consult on any political campaigns, but we are intrigued. The next presidential election is only four years away…

Next time, we’ll look at name pronounceability and the possible impact of candidate names on this year’s contentious election!

Onomastics is the branch of linguistics that deals with names. (“Onomastics” — dazzle your friends at cocktail parties!) But the influence of names in the political arena has an effect far beyond that of linguistic observation.

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