It’s not often a linguistics scholar gets international media attention.
Professor Grant Smith of Eastern Washington University is getting his share for predicting that Bill Clinton will beat Bob Dole this fall based on the sound of their names.
A Feb. 17 story in The Spokesman-Review reported Smith’s prediction and his theory that candidate names influence undecided voters. Clinton’s name sounds more presidential, he said.
After the story appeared, Smith’s prediction was carried in newspapers across the country. Broadcasters around the world called his Cheney office for interviews.
“I don’t want to be too brash about this, but it tickles my fancy. I love it,” said Smith. “It’s my 15 minutes of fame.”
Stories were televised over CBS-TV and Northwest cable news. Radio stations in New York, Dallas, Seattle, Omaha and other cities did interviews. So did the radio networks of Canada and New Zealand.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. asked Smith to predict the winner of Australia’s recent national election. He correctly called the parliamentary race for John Howard, even though Howard trailed in the polls at the time. Howard has a much better sounding name than his opponent, incumbent Paul Keating, Smith said.
Not all of the attention came from the media.
He got a call from a political consulting company interested in putting the theory to work. An actor who plays bit parts in soap operas called asking for Smith’s help in coming up with a hot stage name.
Most of the interviews were for three or four minutes on the air, but some of the segments took as long as 10 or 11 minutes.
That’s probably because Smith makes a good case about his theory. He believes that vowels, consonants and the rhythm of the syllables are important in reflecting a candidate’s image. His theory is based on what he calls phonetic symbolism.
Voters want someone they can trust. They are seeking a kind of comfort level, he said.
His elaborate scoring system that favors names with more than one syllable over names with a single syllable like Dole.
The name Clinton resonates with the “n” at the end, and the last vowel has an easy middle sound, he said. The ending sound of Clinton’s name is the same as Reagan, Jefferson, Jackson and Washington, all popular presidents.
By comparison, he said Dole has a vanilla-sounding name that doesn’t shine with confidence. He believes undecided voters often swing elections, and that increases the importance of names.