EWU prof.: Obama wins presidential name game
Obama, Hillary or McCain: Which is the best presidential name? Barack Obama, according to an Eastern Washington University professor who...
The Associated Press
CHENEY, Wash. — Obama, Hillary or McCain: Which is the best presidential name?
Barack Obama, according to an Eastern Washington University professor who studies how the "music" of names can lead to election success.
English professor Grant Smith contends that — taking no other factor into consideration than the sound of candidates' names — the person with the most pleasing moniker has won 84 percent of presidential elections in the nation's history.
"Rhythms are part of our biology," Smith said, more important than position papers, endorsements or experience. "Name sounds are something the voter is comfortable with or uncomfortable with."
Smith has long been a national figure in onomastics, the study of names. He is widely published on topics such as Shakespearean names, place names, school team names and, of course, political names.
In rating a name, Smith looks at 20 variables, awarding points based on sounds and rhythm.
Many of the best names are similar to singsong children's poetry, alternating strong and soft sounds: Reagan, Truman, Clinton, Lincoln, Smith said.
That's bad news for John McCain, Smith said. And it's not good for Hillary Rodham Clinton because she has chosen to emphasize her first name in campaign material, he said.
That people with familiar, pleasant-sounding names often win elections is no secret, especially if you consider the success of all those Irish-American pols with names like O'Neill and O'Malley over the decades.
Obama's name, in fact, grades out like those "O" names on Smith's scale.
"Obama is very much like O'Donnell," he said.
The name Clinton actually scores higher in comfort than Obama, but Hillary Clinton has negated that advantage by using "Hillary" as her main identifier, in a push to get female votes, Smith said.
"That is admirable in many ways," Smith said. "But it works against the sense of comfort people have with the music of the name 'Clinton.' "
On the GOP side, former candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee both scored better than McCain, but they split so much of the soothing-name vote that McCain was able to prevail, Smith thinks.
"He was lucky," Smith said.
McCain's name scores below Obama or Clinton, Smith said.
Obama's name has already played a role in the campaign, with conservative commentators who have tried to make an issue of Obama's middle name, Hussein.
Obama's unusual first name, Barack, is strong and assertive but of little electoral advantage, Smith said.
"All of my research and statistics show the first name is almost of no statistical significance whatsoever," Smith said.
Smith contends his system is 84 percent accurate in presidential campaigns and 68 percent accurate in the congressional races of 2006.
The last presidential election did not follow Smith's formula. Kerry scored higher as a name than Bush, but John Kerry still lost the election. It was the first time the higher-rated name lost since the 1936 election when Franklin Roosevelt beat Alf Landon, Smith said. The biggest loser of all time is William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat who ran for the presidency three times, had the superior name three times and lost three times.
"He really screws up my average," Smith said.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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