Are Presidential Candidates Running Away From Their Own Names?

Aug 13th 2015

Do you think you know this year's presidential candidates? Try this: what are Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal's first names? Bonus points for Jeb Bush or Rick Perry's.

It wasn't always this way. Ronald Reagan didn't run under the banner "Ron!" Most candidates for high office presented themselves formally as professionals, not as drinking buddies or Broadway musicals. Today, though, full birth names are endangered species on the campaign trail.

Politician with "Your Best Buddy" campaign sign
Mike Flippo/shutterstock

The most common approach is to campaign under a nickname to seem friendly and approachable: 

John Ellis "Jeb" Bush
Benjamin Solomon "Ben" Carson
Christopher James "Chris" Christie
Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz
Cara Carleton "Carly" Fiorina
James Stuart "Jim" Gilmore III
Michael Dale "Mike" Huckabee
Piyush "Bobby" Jindal
Randal Howard "Rand" Paul
James Richard "Rick" Perry
Bernard "Bernie" Sanders
Richard John "Rick" Santorum

Of those dozen candidates, only Bernie Sanders permits his legal first name to appear anywhere on his official campaign site and bio. Some of the nicknamers even stuck to their guns on their official government filing forms. The Federal Election Commision asks for "Name of Candidate (in full)," but Bush, Jindal and Fiorina all registered with the Federal Election Commision under their nicknames.

The flight from formality is starting to chase surnames from the campaign trail, too. Bush, Fiorina, Paul, Sanders and Hillary Clinton routinely campaign on a first-name-only basis. Bush has even styled himself as "Jeb!", suggesting an entertainment extravaganza. In Bush's case, along with Paul and Clinton, part of the motivation for moving away from surnames is surely to distinguish the candidates from their political relatives. Yet past candidates who with famous political surnames like Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy ran with their surnames in full view. The examples of Sanders and Fiorina further show that the first-name movement has momentum of its own.

The names that candidates run under today range from routine childhood nicknames to calculated political messages. Some highlights:

- In the 1990s and 2000s, you might have read about technology executive Carleton S. Fiorina in the business pages. This formal, masculine-sounding name shaped a professional persona in a male-dominated industry, as opposed to Fiorina's legal first name Cara or nickname Carly. In her subsequent forays into politics, Fiorina abandoned the formal name and became full-time Carly. The home page of her presidential campaign site,, doesn't even reveal her surname.

- Growing up in the 1970s young Piyush Jindal, a son of recent immigrants from India, shared a passion with many other kids of his generation: The Brady Bunch. His favorite character was the youngest Brady son Bobby, and at age 4 he insisted on being called Bobby himself. It stuck, and Jindal has been exclusively Bobby ever since.

- Marco Rubio, lacking nickname options, has approached his name very literally as a brand. His campaign materials drop conventional name elements like capitalization and spacing. The resulting logo, presented in a modern, minimalist font, could work just as well for a line of designer casualwear: "marcorubio."

- Hillary Rodham Clinton's first name has never changed, but her surname has been tweaked and analyzed like no other. As a newly married lawyer in the 1970s she chose to retain the surname Rodham in to separate her career from that of her husband, an aspiring politician named Bill Clinton. She later took on the name Clinton during one of Bill's gubernatorial campaigns, to appeal to the sensibilities of Arkansas voters. (A rival named Frank White had campaigned on the fact that his wife was called "Mrs. Frank White.")

When Bill Clinton became president, the first lady's three-part "HRC" name became a subject of public debate. Polls have even shown different levels of electoral support among various groups for "Hillary Clinton" vs. "Hillary Rodham Clinton." As a presidential candidate, her reaction has been to avoid surnames altogether and campaign simply as Hillary.

The overall message from this presidential slate is that in politics, names are now signals to be custom-tailored to an audience. Right now that tailoring is ultra-casual, but fashions can change. I'm reminded of a popular test that parents give to potential baby names, trying out the full name after a title like "Governor" or "Senator" to make sure it sounds suitably serious and stately. They might do better to target flexibility, with multiple nickname options and first and middle names of contrasting styles. Then if politics comes calling, their kids can adjust their names to the prevailing wind.


By Fly
August 13, 2015 11:29 PM

I find "Carly" to be interesting.  I can't think of any women who use nicknames professionally.  It's hard enough just being a woman with your full birth name professionally, let alone a diminuitive form.

It's been a thing in Australia lately too.  "Kevin 07" is probably the most obvious example, who was also subsequently known as "KRudd" - for the youth vote, presumably.  Recent state elections have also seen the Premier of Victoria rebranded as "Dan" Andrews.  "Mike" Baird (the NSW Premier) always known as Mike, and Annastasia Palaszczuk (pal-ah-shay) from QLD.   Annastacia's father was her predecessor in her electorate, and when she (successfully) ran for Premier, her twitter and her website used "Annastacia" (no surname) in the URLs.  In her case, it could just be because no one can spell her surname correctly when they hear it, or read it correctly when they see it, rather than distancing herself from her father or being more personable.  The current Prime Minister and opposition leader are also routinely and exclusively known by their nicknames, "Tony" Abbott and "Bill" Shorten.

Funny how serious policy discussions are secondary to being everyone's best mate!

August 14, 2015 1:30 AM

Campaigning under a nickname is scarcely new.  You mention Bill Clinton, but his given name is actually William.  Similarly, James Earl Carter is far better known as Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford often went by Jerry, John F. Kennedy was frequently called Jack, and Dwight David Eisenhower used "I like Ike" as a campaign slogan.  Several other presidents were commonly known by their initials, like LBJ and FDR, and many, many candidates had colorful nicknames, like Honest Abe, Silent Cal, or Give-'Em-Hell Harry.

By mk
August 14, 2015 2:07 PM

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! Catchy slogans and nicknames are a part of campaigns, though the ones used today are a bit boring.

Jeb has been using the Jeb! slogan in his campaigns for over 20 years.


August 18, 2015 10:06 AM

One fascinating counter to this trend is our current U.S. President, Barack Obama. At one time he went by Barry, a fairly obvious "blending in" nickname for Barack, but his political campaigns used his full, more "exotic" name. Given how much trouble has been stirred up by his opposition over his name (first and last), I've always wondered exactly what the calculus was for this decision.

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