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Clinton Sounds Like A Winner, Scholar Says When Undecided Voters Say His Name, It Taps The Right Emotions

Sat., Feb. 17, 1996

Bill Clinton will be re-elected.

Cheney’s Grant Smith is so sure he’s staking his scholarly reputation on it.

The Eastern Washington University professor believes Clinton’s name has an unbeatable ring, because the way it rolls off the tongue implies presidential qualities of confidence and reason.

The name Clinton is far better, he said, than the names of Republican contenders, except for maybe Pat Buchanan.

“I don’t think Dole can beat Clinton. There’s nothing very positive about that name. It’s vanilla,” said the linguistics scholar.

Smith’s prediction is not some half-baked idea, but a serious language theory: The sounds of names reflect emotions that can influence undecided voters. He calls it phonetic symbolism.

“Sounds echo deep within our hearts,” Smith said. “For politicians, people need to feel comfortable with them.”

Smith developed a system to analyze and compare names. He looks at patterns of consonants and vowels, the number of syllables and the stress points - the building blocks of the spoken word.

His ideas create enough of a stir in academic circles that he is invited to speak at a conference in Scotland this summer.

A panel of experts reviewed his theory and accepted it for the conference schedule. A colleague at York University in Toronto described Smith as one of the best-known figures in the United States in his area of expertise.

Smith doesn’t dismiss the importance of political issues and party affiliation. But he believes most elections are decided by middle-of-the-road voters who look for someone they can trust to make the right decisions.

“The swing votes are those swayed by comfort levels.”

For example, Reagan is one of the great political names in American history because of its soothing ring, Smith said.

That’s because the last syllable resonates with a sense of reassurance, a positive quality for someone with his finger on the button of the world’s greatest military arsenal, Smith said.

Reagan enjoyed one of the most remarkable records of popularity and political resilience.

Language is rooted deeply in our cultural heritage, and the emotional impact of word sounds are so second nature that we forget about their impact, Smith said.

“I think we tend to underestimate the value of sounds. There is music to language. The rhythm, melodies and harmony of language echo deep within our hearts.”

In Smith’s name-ranking system, the last name is more important than first or middle names.

The rhythm created by the syllables is more important than vowel sounds, and vowel sounds are more important than consonant sounds.

Names with two or more syllables like Reagan and Clinton are better than single-syllable names like Bush or Dole.

Emphasis on the first syllable is good. The sound of the last syllable should resonate rather than stop abruptly like it does with the name Ford.

Vowels with a mid-range tone, such as the “o” in Clinton, are the best. That’s the same sound as the “a” in Reagan. In both names, the last vowel has a lower pitch than the first vowel, and that’s good.

The ending sound is the same for Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Johnson and Lincoln.

Consonants that are pronounced with a turbulent sound such as “s,” “j,” “f” and “v” are bad. So is the “oo” in Hoover.

Smith won’t reveal details of his elaborate ranking system, but he said it takes two hours to analyze and compare the names of two contending candidates.

According to Smith, White House hopefuls with the best names have won the popular vote for president 88 percent of the time since 1824.

The exceptions are Alf Landon, who lost to Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression, and William Jennings Bryan, nominated three times but a loser to William McKinley twice and William Taft once.

The name Dukakis has no redeeming qualities as a presidential moniker. The accent on the middle syllable, the sharp, almost clumsy sound created by the repetitive “k,” and the windy sounding “s” are all bad, Smith said.

Even a low-scoring name like Bush is better, he said, so not surprisingly, Bush beat Dukakis but lost to Clinton.

Smith said he started his research after an unknown attorney named Charles Johnson defeated former Chief Justice Keith Callow for the Washington State Supreme Court in 1990. The election surprised most observers.

Politicians have long known a name’s sound and its familiarity with voters affects elections.

But Smith said no one had tried to pick apart the components of names to come up with a system for ranking their sounds.

To test his theory, he analyzed the Spokane County ballot last fall, and found that 73 percent of the candidates with the best names won.

Many of those elections were in small towns or special districts, where the candidates were well known. That may lessen the importance of the sound of the name, Smith said.

On a national level, the winner of the election frequently taps into the center of the political spectrum. Voters with centrist views may be the most likely to swing from Democrat to Republican or vice versa, and are also the most likely to be swayed by something as intrinsic as the sound of the name, he said.

“There’s a rhythm to sounds that guide us in our everyday lives,” he said. “I think it’s deeply imbedded in our physical as well as psychic beings.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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