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February 02, 2008

The looming nickname gap

When you're a guy who writes under a nickname, you sometimes pay a little more attention to that subject than perhaps you should. And I was thinking back to some of the presidents of the mid-20th century: FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Ike. For fun, we could throw in Tricky Dick.

Who is there like that in the current election cycle? Really, nobody. Maybe "Huck" for Huckabee, but that's about it.

So let's expand our definition of nickname to include a distinctive first name or middle name that a candidate is truly known by.

Among the major candidates on the Democratic side, that brings in Hillary, but not Obama (Barack is distinctive, but it's not used much in the campaign) or John Edwards. On the Republican side, we get Huck, Mitt, Rudy, and Fred! (always with an exclamation point). John McCain is still nowhere to be found, and "Maverick" doesn't count, since it's usually his detractors who use it.

This is actually very troubling.

Going into Super Tuesday, it looks as if Hillary and McCain could be well on the way to winning the nominations of their parties. One with a nickname, broadly defined, and one without.

Why is this troubling? Consider the history. I'm going to go through the past presidential elections starting with 1952 to show that there is a slight but distinct edge for the candidate with a nickname. For each election, I'm going to rate the nickname comparison on a scale of 1 to 3 (slight, moderate, or strong) with a plus or a minus sign to indicate whether the candidate with the nickname won or lost.

Next, I'm going to commit an act of mathematics that would have gotten me a 15-yard penalty at my undergraduate math department for "intentional oversimplification": I'm going to average the scores. If you disagree with my approach or my numbers, put it in the comments.

Here we go:


Ike vs. Adlai. One could call this a wash, but "Ike" was used by his supporters much more during the campaign. Eisenhower beat Stevenson. I'm going to rate this a + 1.


Ike vs. Adlai again. Same result. + 1.


JFK vs. Nixon. Serious nickname. Kennedy beat Nixon. + 3.


LBJ vs. Goldwater. Johnson beat Goldwater. "AuH2O" was a cute bumper sticker, but it wasn't a nickname for Goldwater. This election gets a + 3.


HHH vs. Nixon. Lots of people referred to Humphrey in writing as HHH, but he wasn't identified as such in nearly the same way that Kennedy and Johnson were with their initials. And in any event, Nixon won. I rate this a - 2. The negative sign means the candidate with a nickname lost.


Nixon vs. McGovern. Neither had a real nickname, other than Nixon's "Tricky Dick." I call this a wash. A big, fat 0.


"Jimmy" Carter vs. Gerald Ford. Carter had to take action, sometimes legal action, to force states to list him as "Jimmy" on the ballot, instead of James Earl. Most states then required an official, legal name. Carter won, so I give him a + 2.


Reagan vs. Carter. Reagan was sometimes known as "Dutch," but really, Reagan was REAGAN, larger than life and without a nickname. Carter, execrable as he was, was "Jimmy." Reagan beat him, so this election gets a - 2.


Reagan vs. Mondale. Mondale was sometimes known as "Fritz," but his supporters rarely used that name for him during the campaign. I'd call this one a wash, or 0.


Bush vs. Dukakis. Neither really had a nickname. Both were indescribably dull. I'd call this a wash, too, or 0.


Bush vs. Clinton. Clinton played up the "Bubba" angle, not so much for a nickname as for his southern background. He won. This is a close call, but I'd give it a + 1.


Clinton vs. Dole. Bob Dole's nickname was Bob Dole, in the third person. He gets no credit. He loses big time. As above, this is a + 1.


Bush vs. Gore. Bush was often "Dubya" or "W," and his supporters used those appellations a lot of the time. Gore was simply Gore (or, if you're Rush Limbaugh, Algore). Bush won. (Yes, he really did, you lunatics.) So I give this a + 2.


Bush vs. Kerry. Kerry wanted to be the second coming of JFK, but no one paid any attention. Bush won again. I give this a + 2.


The total of all the ratings is 12 for 14 presidential elections, an average of just under 1, a slight but very distinct positive correlation with nickname.

This truly is not a good sign, because Hillary! has a noticeable edge over McCain.

We have a looming nickname gap, and the Republicans would be well advised to do something about it.