The POTUS Name Game: Why Some 2016 Candidates Are Ditching Their Family Name

Why all the buzz about whether we should call former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Hillary”? Or use just the familiar “Jeb” to refer to former Florida Governor John Ellis Bush.

Bush and Clinton are among a small handful of candidates who are running exclusively on their first names in the 2016 election. The other candidates include U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul.

The GOP field, in particular, is a crowded one for 2016. At last count there were over sixteen serious contenders for the Republican nomination. Keeping track of all the names, first or last, is exhausting, and with so many entrants, the Republican primary campaign has already been likened to a circus.

The Democratic field is much simpler with only five major candidates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb. For some, use of a first name alone is clearly not an option where national name recognition is the goal. “Jim who?” “Who is Martin?”

The surnames Clinton and Bush evoke a history (and corresponding baggage) that they may not want Americans to bring top-of-mind to the voting booth.
Glenn Davis, IVN Independent Author
In times past, addressing a national leader by his or her first name might have a connotation of seeming disrespectful or irreverent. But today we live in an age where informality has its appeal, especially to younger Americans.

Is this what Hillary and Jeb are trying to achieve? They are fortunate that their first names are distinct – in the clear sense that “Scott,” “Jim,” and “Rick” might not be. But at the same time, are they intentionally avoiding their equally recognizable family names? The surnames Clinton and Bush evoke a history (and corresponding baggage) that they may not want Americans to bring top-of-mind to the voting booth.

Clearly, Hillary is not Bill Clinton, and Jeb is not his father or older brother. But the “another Bush” or “another Clinton” syndrome is a challenge for their respective campaigns.

Rand Paul faces a similar conundrum with family history. Although his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul, was never successful in his 3 presidential campaigns, this history does give him name recognition. To some Americans, it may be easy to confuse “Rand” with “Ron” (what difference can a couple of letters make?). Perhaps to address this, Rand also took the first-name-only approach with his “Stand With Rand” tagline.

For a first name (or a nickname) to be advantageous, it must be recognizable and unambiguous; familiar, yet convey the right image.

Hillary, Jeb, Bernie, Rand and others have made that choice, and in a high-stakes game, are betting that it’s the right one. The next time you see a first name on a bumper sticker, give some thought to what’s behind it and what went into that decision. It’s not taken lightly by any campaign, and voters are the final focus group. But with so many names involved, confusion is sure to reign as the 2016 election nears.