In an election, monikers such as George, Bill and Ross can influence voters' perceptions


October 12, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Ross is a Ross is a Ross. By any other name, would Mr. Perot be as, well, Rossian?

Ross is successful, cheerful, masculine and warm. That, at least, according to the research of Albert Mehrabian, a California-based psychologist who gauges how people respond to various names.

"The name in this case is a winner," said Dr. Mehrabian, author of "The Name Game: The Decision That Lasts a Lifetime," (Penguin, $4.50). "Ross comes in first, then Bill, then George. George is a weak third."

"Ross is strong. It's a good positive name," agreed Ed Lawson, a longtime researcher of personal names and a professor emeritus of psychology at State University of New York, Fredonia. "William has to be one of the best names, but [Clinton] uses Bill, which isn't the same. And George -- well, he's stuck with the Georgie-Porgie thing."

While the polls may say otherwise, that's how the presidential candidates -- or at least their names -- stack up from an onomatological point of view. Onomatology's the study of names, as practiced by researchers such as Dr. Mehrabian and Dr. Lawson.

Both work similarly -- they survey people on their responses to first names, then rate the names according to qualities like success, morality, intelligence, sincerity and masculinity or femininity.

This year's contest offers some interesting onomatological factors. The Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, for example, is not just double-Bubba, it's double-nickname.

"This is part and parcel of politics today -- to seem like you're one of the boys, or one of the girls, to seem approachable," Dr. Mehrabian said. "What this tells me about a person, who deliberately chooses to use a nickname, is he wants to create an impression that he is an outgoing, bubbly, cheerful, popular sort, rather than an upstanding, reliable, statesman type. I think it's the personal style in this day and age when politics are superficial and everything is little phrases and keywords."

Perhaps Dr. Mehrabian is not entirely unbiased on this point -- he is definitely "Albert," and doesn't cotton to the "Al" nickname that Mr. Goreapparently prefers. But Mr. Gore's pick may have some benefits, Dr. Lawson said.

"Have you ever called a tobacco store and said, 'Do you have Prince Albert in a can?' It's an old joke," said Dr. Lawson, who, incidentally, prefers Ed to his given Edwin except in formal situations.

As for the Bush-Quayle ticket, however, it probably is using the only names it can. While George is not the most desirable name -- it may have contributed to the "wimp" thing that has plagued Mr. Bush in the past, Dr. Mehrabian said -- it's probably his only option.

"People can fall back on middle names if they don't like their first names, but in George's case, the problem is his other names are even worse," Dr. Mehrabian said of George Herbert Walker Bush's other possible monikers.

And while Dr. Mehrabian tends to favor given names over nicknames, in Mr. Quayle's case, "Dan" is better than his given "Danforth." "Too heavy," he said.

Of course, going by the 40 men who have been president to date, you should name your baby James if you want to push him toward the White House. There have been five (six if you count James Earl Carter, better known as Jimmy): Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield. Second place goes to the four Johns: Adams, (Quincy) Adams, Tyler, Kennedy.

You can't dismiss unusual names in a presidential candidate, though -- we've elected presidents named Zachary, Millard, Ulysses, Rutherford, Woodrow and Calvin. Not to mention vice presidents named Elbridge, Hannibal, Levi, Adlai, Garret, Alben and Spiro.

Still, Dr. Lawson and Dr. Mehrabian agreed, names only go so far.

"Names are first impressions," Dr. Lawson said. "The more ambiguity in the situation, the more likely you're going to be influenced by a name. But the more we know about the candidates, the less it's going to influence our vote."

As for the candidates' wives, well, the changing of the guard is perhaps more clear in their handles than their husbands, Dr. Lawson said. Hillary and Tipper are decidedly not your father's candidates' wives.

"Barbara and Marilyn are good standbys. Hillary -- well, she doesn't do so good. Women like the name better than men. And Tipper doesn't even register," Dr. Lawson said of his research.

His impression of a woman named Tipper -- a childhood nickname that stuck; her real name is Mary Elizabeth -- is that she is"with-it and has personality," Dr. Lawson said.

"Oh, gee. I don't even have ratings for that name. I don't think it's a very good name," Dr. Mehrabian said. "It's kind of a frivolous sounding name. . . ."

Barbara and Marilyn, by contrast, score high in the warmth and femininity departments, his ratings indicate. Which, if public reactions to things like Mrs. Clinton's cookie problem, may be what voters are looking for in a first lady.

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