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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
US elections: Short name, short odds
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online Magazine

George Bush

What's the big question US presidential candidates should be asking themselves?

Is my name short enough?

You only have to glance at the credits on a Hollywood movie to see the polysyllabic, ethnic diversity of surnames in the great melting pot of the United States.

But when it comes to voting for a president, the gene pool shrinks rapidly, and the preference is for monikers that are blunt and Anglo-Saxon.

So if you want to find a way of forecasting who is going to win the race for the presidency, look at the lengths and origins of their names. The pattern since World War II has been for candidates with increasingly short, poster-friendly names. And preferably sounding like they could be the lead characters in a mini-series.

In the last electoral battle, in 2000, the names couldn't have got any shorter, with a two-syllable play-off between George Bush and Al Gore.

Short cuts

Perhaps the Republicans have already rumbled this short-name advantage. In the three decades since Richard Nixon was turfed out of office, Ronald Reagan has been the only Republican candidate with a surname longer than one syllable. Coincidence?

Ronald Reagan
Only GOP candidate in 30 years without a one-syllable surname
This hasn't always been successful. Bob Dole was overrun by the longer-named Bill Clinton, but again it was by someone with an unassuming surname and there was only a single syllable difference.

Bill Clinton also has the distinction of being one of only two presidents since the WWII to have beaten rivals with fewer syllables in their name. The other was Jimmy Carter, who beat Gerald Ford, in the far from usual circumstances following Watergate.

Otherwise the candidate with a shorter name has not been defeated. All of which must be a worrying sign for John Kerry - unless the "Dubya" is counted as part of his rival's name.

Short and punchy

Looking at the candidates' syllable count isn't an entirely frivolous way of looking at elections, says Barbara Kellerman, research director at the Center for Public Leadership, in the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

If politics is about brand logos and bumper stickers, then "short and punchy" names which are highly visible and easy to remember are going to be an advantage, she says.

When "masculine leadership" is to the fore, a single syllable name is going to sound "strong, sturdy and forceful", says Professor Kellerman. "Attention spans are shrinking with each generation, and in an era of sound-bites having a short name is going to make a difference. There's something attention-grabbing about it."

Long names, long gone

If you want to find a president with a three-syllable surname you have to go back to John Kennedy in 1960. Latter-day tri-syllabics, such as Michael Dukakis in 1988, went down in flames.

If you go back to the slower-paced 1950s, it was possible for Dwight Eisenhower to get his name squeezed onto a ballot form.

Apart from the slight profile-raising advantage of having been supreme allied commander during the war, he was also helped by running against someone with a name as long as his own: Adlai Stevenson. And to make the point even clearer, his supporters cut the name right back to the no-nonsense, movie-star brevity of "Ike".

John Kennedy and Harold Macmillan
Kennedy, Macmillan and the Three Syllable Era

Theories that short names would confer advantage are, however, rejected by a former presidential adviser and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution political think-tank in Washington, Stephen Hess.

It might make it easier for headlines, he says, but overall it's not an issue. African-Americans can have short, Anglo-Saxon names, but they still have not appeared among the winning candidates.

Among the elite

But Richard Crockatt, professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, says names are significant because of what they say about the candidate's origins.

"For all the ethnic diversity in the US, it's still an elite system, linked to education, income and status, which gives built-in advantages to old-stock Americans."

Short names seem to curry political advantage in the UK too. The last elected prime minister with a three-syllable name was Harold Macmillan, who left Downing Street in 1963. Yet longer surnames are not unusual in Britain. A quick glance of the team-sheets in last Saturday's England-Wales football qualifier reveals there were six players on the pitch with three-syllable names.

Of course there's nothing new about getting yourself a short, tough-guy name to create a stronger image. After all, how would Joseph Vissarionvich Djvugashvili have fared if he hadn't changed his name to Stalin?


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