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The game of the name

Every president elected since 1960 has boasted a name no longer than seven letters. Most of the losers, too.

The graphic designers, at least, are delighted with the two major-party candidates for president. "Bush" and "Gore" — two short, punchy names — leave a lot of room to play with on bumper stickers and campaign placards.

Don't laugh. Such considerations might be weighty when it comes to running a high-profile campaign. What could you say on a bumper sticker for a candidate named Alexei Visheransky?

"Alexei Visheransky" is an imaginary candidate, made up by Allan Saxe, a political historian at the University of Texas at Arlington who says a pithy name, all other things being equal, is good to have when you're running for office, if only because "we can remember [it] easier."

This is the time in the campaign season when political junkies, waiting for the nominating conventions, look for any angle that can help them handicap the election. They'll even read and debate stories about factors a normal man or woman might consider trivia — such as the number of letters in a candidate's names.

This is one of those stories.

So, what is in a name?
You might think it unusual that both major parties this year will nominate men with names shorter than Gary Bauer's campaign.

You would be wrong. Every president elected since 1960 has boasted a name no longer than seven letters. Most of the losers, too. In fact, the only nominees of either party in the last 40 years to break that rule were Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. Goldwater lost in a crushing landslide to Lyndon Johnson. Humphrey and McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, whose campaign tactics were, if anything, more blunt than his name.

"I hate to say this, but there may be some truth to the idea that those long names have some underlying psychological prejudice [for] some people," Saxe said in an interview.

If Dwight Eisenhower, for example, "had not been the great World War II general, a lot of people would have thought, 'What is this name?' " Saxe said. Even so, Eisenhower made sure his campaign buttons capitalized on his nickname. "I Like Ike," they proclaimed, not "It's Victory Hour for Eisenhower."

Franklin Roosevelt had a more serious problem on his hands. "In the '30s, a lot of people thought it was a Jewish name," Saxe said. (It was, in fact, Dutch.)

It was all "crazy nonsense stuff," Saxe said, but it didn't stop Nazi propagandists and their sympathizers from using it against him.

Hold on just a minute
Brad Lockerbie would agree that it's "crazy nonsense stuff." "I don't think the length of the name matters to the voters," Lockerbie, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said in an interview.

Lockerbie is a man who knows how and why people vote the way they do, having compiled a record of astonishing accuracy predicting national elections. In 1998, when most political analysts figured the Democrats would lose seats in the House at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Lockerbie was virtually alone among presidential scholars in predicting that the Democrats would gain seats. Not only that, but he got the number of seats exactly right.

There's only one flaw with short-name prognostication, he said: It's flat-out wrong.

It's fine to look at only elections since 1960, but Americans have been electing presidents for more than 200 years, and "when you restrict your time period, you're going to find patterns whether they're meaningful or not," he said.

For many years before 1960, the candidate with the longer name won. You have to go all the way back to 1916 to find an election when that didn't happen, and even then it's only because both candidates had six-letter names: Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats and Charles Evans Hughes for the Republicans.

Short-name prognostication, according to Lockerbie, is like a variety of other "happenstance patterns" the press has swallowed over the years. Such as the World Series rule: If the American League team wins the World Series, the Republican candidate wins the presidency. Except the American League Toronto Blue Jays and Democrat Bill Clinton won in 1992.

Or the taller candidate rule, which says short men lose to tall men. But McGovern was taller than Nixon.

Or the Rose Bowl rule, "discovered" by an analyst with far too much time on his hands. If the mascot of the team that wins college football's Rose Bowl is an animal, the Democrats will win the White House. If a team with a human mascot wins, so will the Republican. Except the Southern California Trojans and Democrat Clinton won in 1996. And the UCLA Bruins and Republican Ronald Reagan won in 1984.

It's only bored pundits and summer-news-weary writers who pay any attention to such trivia, Lockerbie said. Otherwise, how do you explain swings in popularity during a campaign?

George Bush (four letters) may indeed have beaten Michael Dukakis (seven letters) 12 years ago, but for part of that summer, Dukakis enjoyed big leads in opinion polls. In Lockerbie's view, voters ended up preferring Bush for such practical reasons as their wish to continue Reagan's programs and their concerns over Dukakis' stands on criminal justice issues. Americans didn't suddenly all learn to count at the same time and change their minds about the presidential race.

Short-attention-span theater
Saxe suggested, however, that politicians in a world of quick-cutting, short-attention-span electronic media may have learned a lesson from Hollywood, where actors historically have changed unusual names to something easier to remember. We know Frances Gumm and Archibald Leach better as Judy Garland and Cary Grant, and not even Lockerbie would dispute that Walter Matuchanskayasky would have had a harder time winning his Oscar if he hadn't repackaged himself as Walter Matthau.

"If it works in Hollywood, why not have it work in politics, as well?" Saxe asked.

The legitimate advantage of short, punchy names, he said, is that they can camouflage an ethnicity that might alienate particular segments of the electorate.

"People just like those quick-sounding names ... with an anglicized idea to them," he said. "Both [Al] Gore and [George W.] Bush fit that perfectly."

Saxe suggested that brief speculation that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson might be considered as Gore's running mate could be the function of two almost contradictory factors: As a Hispanic-American, he could cut attract Hispanic-American voters who might otherwise have voted Republican. But with the name "Richardson," he wouldn't alienate an entirely different set of voters who might have been uncomfortable voting for a Hispanic candidate.

But Lockerbie — who with his nine-letter name might have difficulty winning an election himself if the short-name theory were valid — remains unconvinced.

While such odd patterns may be "cute, and they tell a nice story," he insisted, that's all such a theory is — just "a nice story."