The Republican Presidential Name Field
Quick quiz: which of the eight major Republican presidential candidates go by their full first names on the campaign trail?
There are just three out of those eight, a sign of the times. Politics today is increasingly a land of self-applied names of choice. That choice invariably pushes the name toward the brief and informal, encouraging a friendly, likeable, man-of-the-people image. So even as more and more parents insist that their little James be called James, candidates named James introduce themselves as Jim...or even Rick, in the case of James Richard Perry. (There's a freebie for you.)
Looking back over broadly contested Republican primaries, the decline of the birth certificate name has been swift and certain. In 1968, all of the candidates campaigned under their full first names. In 1980 it was down to 5 out of 7. Since then short nicknames have dominated, with the sole exception of 2000 when the main candidates happened to have one-syllable given names (George Bush and John McCain).
This year's birth-name three are Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. Why did those three buck the trend? Well, Michele Bachmann can't easily go for the "man of the people" bit, not being a man. Michele makes a pretty good political everywoman name, too. Herman Cain's name just doesn't have a handy, back-slapping nickname, and he has no middle name to turn to. Jon Huntsman was spared the need for a nickname, since he has a nickname for a given name.
Among the others we see three brief, snappy nicknames; one middle name that's a brief, snappy nickname; and one brief, snappy nickname of a middle name. Spot any trend there?
The middle namer is Mitt Romney, born Willard Mitt Romney. The name Mitt was taken from the nickname of Romney's father's cousin, football player Milton Romney. The first name Willard was in honor of his father's friend Willard Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel chain. (Of course, Willard Marriott himself was actually John Willard Marriott.)
Romney's public name is part of a long naming tradition in American politics. Many prominent candidates have gone by middle names which were not traditional given names, instead of more familiar first names. James Strom Thurmond and Thomas Woodrow Wilson are two examples. And Mitt is clearly more campaign friendly than Willard. If Romney did go by his first name, you can bet it would be in the form Will (just like actor/rapper Willard Smith).
In sum, smart money says the eventual Republican nominee will run under a one-syllable name. The leaders in most polls, Mitt and Newt, are a particularly quirky pair of names. Mitt/Newt vs. Barack would be the least traditional name showdown in American presidential history, easily surpassing Dwight vs. Adlai (1952/56) and Ulysses vs. Horatio (1868).
The splendid flamboyance of that last pair can't help but make the current era -- epitomized by Bill vs. Bob in 1996 -- seem a little drab. But take heart, the electoral generation of Krystopher and Tiffanie is right around the corner.