Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Are Americans Looking for More Unorthodox Candidates?

Politico has an interesting article today about some of the confusing names on Capital Hill. Many of the freshmen class members of Congress have been put in Congressional Quarterly’s pronunciation guide for Hill clerks.

And, of course, the most obvious uncommon name in Washington is Barack Obama.

From the story:

…expert Grant Smith says voters often look to make meaningful connections with politicians’ names based on the phonetic sounds they make.

According to his research, candidates with the most pleasant-sounding names have won 84 percent of all presidential elections, based on a 20-part rating system that judges names by rhythm and sounds.

“It’s important to look at the relative comfort level of the names,” he said. “Voters like clear, distinctive rhythms.”

For instance, two-syllable names that alternate stronger and softer sounds, like Crapo and Clinton, score high, while choppier names like Dukakis score lower.

At least this is the way of thinking among campaign workers and election experts, because traditionally these are the trends that voters have made. This is why one of Rep. Tom Perriello’s (D-VA) campaign staffers became so upset when people mispronounced her boss’s name.

The last straw came during a campaign visit to Crystal Cathedral. Pastor Maurice Carter introduced the candidate to the congregation as “Mr. Tom Perry Ellis” and continued to refer to him as “Mr. Ellis” — as if he were the namesake for the clothing line.

The congressman politely let it pass.

“I was cringing,” said press secretary Jessica Barba. “We’d heard a lot of variations on the trail, but that was a little painful.”

Some campaigns find clever ways to use the confusion to their advantage. Perriello, for example, told voters in a TV ad “How you pronounce my name isn’t what’s important; knowing what it stands for is.”

Others find clever ways to make voters remember the correct pronunciation. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Madison, WI - who is simply known to his constituents as “Mayor Dave” since few can remember the surname - tried to familiarize voters with his last name with the button to the right.

Yet, with the election of Obama and several members of Congress with funny last names, the traditional trends don’t seem to hold.

[Now] election records suggest out of the ordinary increasingly appeals to voters. The names of incoming freshmen have grown more unusual over the years, thanks in part to a combination of the nation’s increasing diversity and, in the age of Barack Obama, a rising generation of voters with a greater appetite for unique names.

Only three of 65 freshmen elected to the 111th Congress have surnames that are included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 100 most common last names.

And over the past four Congresses, common names in the freshman class have been decreasing, from 25.8 percent in the 108th Congress to just 4.6 percent in the current class.

Perhaps it is a new trend that Americans don’t expect to be able to pronounce every surname correctly these days, or maybe it’s because they’re looking for refreshing candidates that don’t resemble the archetype Washington politician.

Either way, it appears that Americans just aren’t looking for an orthodox name in their candidates anymore.

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