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What’s in a candidate’s name? Maybe an edge

Grant Smith, a linguist and EWU professor of English, says  how the sound of a name is perceived by a voter is significant. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Grant Smith, a linguist and EWU professor of English, says how the sound of a name is perceived by a voter is significant. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

If he were a betting man, Grant Smith would bet Hillary Clinton will beat Donald Trump in the presidential election.

He is neither a betting man nor a political analyst. Smith is a linguist who makes the call – with some provisos – on the sound of the candidates’ last names.

An English professor at Eastern Washington University who specializes in a branch of linguistics known as onomastics, Smith has analyzed candidate names going back to 1992 and compared them with their success.

He considers rhythm, basic poetic appeal and certain predictability of sounds. Under those measurements, Clinton, the current Democratic front-runner, should have an edge in generating a favorable emotional response from voters based on her two-syllable name that ends on a softer syllable. It could remind voters of children’s poetry and nursery rhymes that rely on that predictable pattern, he said.

“There’s a comfort factor,” said Smith, who also teaches poetry at EWU. “People seek a sense of predictability with a name.”

Based on those criteria, Clinton is one of the more pleasant sounding names of American presidents, ranking only slightly behind the all-time top: Reagan.

Smith made his first splash in analyzing presidential names for their sound quality in 1992, when he said a relatively lesser-known governor of Arkansas had the edge in terms of name sounds over the sitting president named Bush. He’s studied the results of thousands of elections since then and come up with a set of principles that predict election results about 68 percent of the time overall and 80 percent in presidential races.

In 2016, another Clinton is likely to face another monosyllabic name, but Smith said presumed GOP nominee Trump registers much better on the ear than Bush. The blended consonants at the start have a straightforward sound, and the vowel – the “uh” technically known as a schwa sound – is an absolute middle value.

The name evokes a sense of simplicity and a feeling of “I’m going to tell you the way it is,” Smith said.

“That could have a visceral appeal to people who are fed up with the dysfunctionality of governing bodies,” he said.

Many things influence an election, Smith said, and the analysis of name sounds doesn’t take into account voters’ interest in how a candidate stands on the issues, or what they may know or think about the candidate’s history. The emotional reaction to a name may be a small thing, but in a race with millions of votes, a small thing can be important.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Smith said. “It’s not determinative, but it does have an effect.”

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