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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

February 22, 2012 at 6:30 AM

What do you call a presidential candidate? Names, titles, and the art of political name-calling

Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum

Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum (Photos courtesy of,,, and

Name recognition is big in politics. Amid a field of candidates for various offices, having voters know your name is key.

That’s why we still have the ultimate old school campaign technology: yard signs. They show support, yes, but more importantly they get a candidate’s name in the head of anyone who passes by. And in local races, name recognition, put simply, equals more votes. Think about Washington Congressman Jim McDermott — after more than 20 years in office, the guy’s got name recognition he banks on each election. Half of Seattle can probably spell his name in their sleep and check the box next to it.

At this point in the presidential race, most people know the names of the four Republican candidates: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. Mitt, Rick, Newt, and Ron: the GOP’s 2012 Final Four.

All this got me to thinking, what do we average voters call the candidates and why?

Let’s start with their titles.

On the campaign trail I noticed that the Republican presidential candidates were referred to as “Senator Santorum,” “Governor Romney,” “Speaker Gingrich,” and “Congressman Paul.” With the exception of Paul, none currently hold the office used in their salutation.

Colloquially, I thought that only presidents got to keep their title once out of office. I thought of it as a parting prize: “Congratulations, for running the country for 4 or 8 years you get prime seats at any sporting event, can make a ton of money on the speaker circuit, and will forever be addressed as ‘President!’” (Secretly, I have spent much of my teen and adult life trying to figure out what professions would allow me to walk into any sports stadium or arena and get amazing seats at the drop of the hat. Suggestions welcomed in the Comments section.)

So why are these three candidates still being called by their previous title and should they be? On the campaign trail, and especially at the beginning of the election, using a candidate’s previous official title is a way of quickly identifying the person and signaling respect for her or his credentials. With thousands of active and former members of U.S. Congress, state legislatures, the Cabinet, and Governor, we could all use a little help in knowing who’s who.

As for whether they should be using these titles, I defer to an expert. Robert Hickey is the author of Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address. According to Hickey, “Former officials who hold a position of which there is more than one at a time — retired judges, retired senators, etc — use their ‘title’ in every situation for the rest of their lives.” However, he continued, “Officials of which there is only one at a time (The Governor, The President of the United States, The Speaker of the House)… don’t continue use of their former title. They use what they were entitled before taking the one-at-a-time position, e.g., Dwight Eisenhower in retirement went back to ‘General Eisenhower.’”

So it appears Santorum can continue to be, well, Senator Santorum, but Romney and Gingrich are supposed to be out of luck.

But … in politics, formal titles never seem to disappear. Christine Gregoire will likely be Governor Gregoire even after she departs office in 2013. In presidential politics, in particular, it comes off as a bit too informal in a debate or in a news report to greet the potential next Most-Powerful-Person-in-the-World with a “Hey Mitt,” or “What’s Up Gingrich?”

Furthermore, so much of the rhetoric of presidential politics is one campaign being critical of another, so candidates choose to employ the social niceties of formal titles to hide the knife behind their back. As in, “That statement by my friend Governor Romney is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” It’s the art of taking down people with a smile.

Moving on to their given names.

When talking about politics to friends and family, what do you call the candidates? First name, last name, both? In Washington, some call our Senators Patty or Maria, others call them Murray or Cantwell; some others take their names in vain, of course. I don’t personally know anyone who calls Gov. Gregoire by her first name.

In 2008, presidential candidates’ given names mattered.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (Photo courtesy of and

Early in the campaign, Hillary Clinton dropped the use of her maiden name, going from “Hillary Rodham Clinton” to “Hillary Clinton.” At that time, about 95% of married women used their husband’s name, and there was some speculation that she dropped the maiden name to more closely align with social norms.

Her campaign also went through another name change. At one point, Hillary Clinton became just “Hillary.” The Clinton campaign was using “Hillary!” in their promotions, much like previous campaigns (Recall, “I like Ike”?). But some said the use of just “Hillary” in the news media was veiled sexism.

The Chicago Tribune was one of the newspapers that used just “Hillary” in its headlines, prompting public editor Timothy McNulty to write a response which included the following quote from Tribune online editor Jane Fritsch, “The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names…The argument that we call her Hillary to avoid confusion [with her husband] is a weak one. There are easy alternatives….Certainly the problem created by the existence of two presidents named George Bush has been a difficult one, but we found ways to solve it without diminishing George W. Bush.”

Barack Obama faced his own challenges with his given name while on the trail. His name is not a common one in America, and certainly hasn’t appeared among the highest echelons of the nation’s political leadership. Our history is one of Johns and Georges. In his career-launching 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama wasted no time in telling his audience that Barack was an African name that meant “Blessed.” Had to take care of that right away.

An even bigger to-do was Obama’s middle name, Hussein. It fueled questions and curiosities about his background because the name is Arabic and was shared by Saddam Hussein, once America’s Public Enemy No. 1. People still use his middle name to make political statements. At a Republican presidential caucus in Las Vegas, a speaker twice emphasized the importance of defeating Barack Hussein Obama. Like him or not, our president has a memorable name.

Whether you call this year’s crop of Republican candidates by their first or last name, I am pretty sure all they care about is the name you check on the ballot on March 3.

Comments | Topics: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Gender


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