What's in a President's Name?

An English professor says political candidates whose names follow a "strong-soft" pattern are more likely to succeed. Musical qualities are said to influence voters' choices, and "Clinton" supposedly has better musical sound than "Obama," with its middle syllable stress.

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Back in January, shortly before the Florida Republican Primary, one voter in Palm Beach named Sheryl Carpenter-Climick(ph) told me about her 3-year-old son's favorite candidate for president.

Ms. SHERYL CARPENTER-CLIMICK (Resident, Florida): My son says we need to vote for Huckabee because I think he just likes the way the name sound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLIMICK: Huckabee, Huckabee, Huckabee.

SIEGEL: Well, the bad news for Mike Huckabee was that 3-year-olds don't have to vote, at least not yet.

But this idea of voting for people based on the sound of their last name evidently persists well beyond nursery school and even into adulthood. That's according to Grant Smith, professor of English at Eastern Washington University. Professor Smith has written a paper called "The Influence of Name Sounds in Presidential Primaries of 2008," a paper which builds on his previous work. And he joins us from Spokane.

Welcome to the program, Professor Smith.

Professor GRANT SMITH (English, Eastern Washington University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And just to explain what you've written about here, you had claimed that obviously voters are influenced by many other things, many more political things, but at some level the sound of a name matters.

Prof. SMITH: Absolutely. And it's like music or poetry, it moves us very much like the soundtrack of a movie that's playing on the background of the action.

SIEGEL: And some characteristics of a good name for a political candidate.

Prof. SMITH: A good name has a trochaic rhythm to it - a strong-soft, strong-soft. It is the basic pattern of children's poetry — "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater" kind of thing.

SIEGEL: Truman, Reagan…

Prof. SMITH: And it gives…

SIEGEL: Kerry.

Prof. SMITH: Truman, Reagan, Kerry, Cleveland, Lincoln. These names have good, strong patterns that are appealing and give a sense of comfort and predictability. And the voter is focusing on that family name in marking a ballot, single syllable names do not score so well.

SIEGEL: Now, I know that you've found many attributes that you would associate with a good name. But beyond simply proposing the theory of it, have you actually tested just the sounds on people or gone to do some research to see if your characteristics hold up?

Prof. SMITH: I've analyzed all the names of the 1998 congressional elections. Again, I replicated that experiment in 2006 analyzing all Senate and House seats. And a predictive rate for 1998 was over 66 percent and 2006, it was over 68 percent.

SIEGEL: Well, there are three major party contenders left, and their names are Obama, Clinton and McCain. How would you score those three names?

Prof. SMITH: Well, the interesting is that Clinton has branded herself primarily as Hillary, and so when we see the Hillary name over and over again, perhaps that's the name that should be scored. Clinton scores higher than Obama, and both Clinton and Obama score higher than McCain. But Hillary is lower than Obama. I would say that McCain is about average for people who've won the presidency, but these other names are better than average in terms of the scores of comfort levels with the name.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Grant Smith of Eastern Washington University, thanks for talking to us about political candidates and their names.

Prof. SMITH: Thank you very much.

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