Voters prefer a 'Tom,' 'Dick,' or 'Harry' on the ballot

Might the Republican presidential candidate have Tuesday's election sewed up if he were running as "Ron" Reagan instead of Ronald? The question isn't as inconsequential as it may sound. A nickname, it happens, can be as important an electoral asset to a politician as a telegenic smile or a pocketbook issue.

Its ballot-box clout is attested by scientific research, professional campaign consultants, and countless politicians who have adopted folksy monikers -- from President Jimmy Carter on down the ticket.

Researchers have found that voters with only casual interest in an election, in scanning their ballot for cues on how to vote, are attracted to candidates with nicknames.

This drawing power can add as much as 8 percent to a candidate's vote tally in races at the precinct level, according to research at San Diego State University in California.

In a close presidential contest, with large numbers of undecided voters, perhaps the "nickname factor" shouldn't be discounted.

Advises Campaigning Reports, a newsletter on the nuts and bolts of running for public office: "If you've got a nickname, use it on all your literature, ads , and news releases. It'll pay off at the polls."

Politicians have begun to take the advice in droves.

For most of his 20 years on Capitol Hill, the now-senior senator from Kansas (and Republican candidate for vice-president in 1976) went by the name of Robert J. Dole. Now, however, he uses the more regular-guy-sounding "bob Daole," even in formal correspondence.

It may be only coincidence that the switch orrurred shortly before what threatened to be a tough re-election race this year.

Another senator currently locked in a tight re-election contest also has put himself on more chummy terms with his constituents. His offical signature used to read, in more high-sounding style, Gary Winn Hart, but the Colorado Democrat is now just plain "Gary Hart."

When former Oklahoma University football coach Charles Wilkinson ran for the US Senate a few years ago, he went so far as to legally change his name so it would appear on the ballot as "Bud Wilkinson." He lost, but amassed more votes than any previous statewide Republican candidate.

In a recent letter to the President from 102 members of the House of Representatives, roughly one-third of them signed with their nicknames.

State governors also are climbing aboard the nickname bandwagon.

When he was an assistant US attorney general in Washington, the handle he used was Richard L. Thornburgh. But when he plunged into elective politics and won the governorship of Pennsylvania, he cultivated a more common touch as "Dick Thornburgh."

The governor of Maryland, similarly, has officially transformed himself from Harry R. Hughes to the simpler "Harry Hughes."

Then there's the case of Rep. S. William Green (R) of New York. He recently dispatched letters to newsmen announcing that henceforth he would be known as "Bill Green." The letters were signed by press secretary H. Trainor Roden, who, obediently following his boss's example, switched his name to "Hank Roden."

But politicians' new penchant for downmarketing their names doesn't endear them to all voters.

After reading a letter to the Washington Post from three senators who signed their first names as Bob, Jack, and Pete, one reader wrote to protest the "tasteless informality."

"Are they ashamed of their given names, are they trying to be cute, or are they trying to come down to the level of us hoi polloi in this specious way?" he asked.

Some politicians, too, are stubbornly bucking the trend. One of them is Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia.

He recently received a letter from the President, who long ago dropped James Earl for Jimmy.It began: "to Senator Bob Byrd."

The senator moaned. "I wish," he said, "they'd call me Robert down there."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.