Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Managing Monikers: The Role of Name Presentation in the 2008 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Managing Monikers: The Role of Name Presentation in the 2008 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Monikers matter. People consider them when choosing mates (Foss and Edson 1998; Scheuble, Klingemann, and Johnson 2000), evaluating students (Busse and Seraydarian 1977, 1978, 1979; Figlio 2004), purchasing products (Bloch and Richins 1983; Heibing and Cooper 2003; Simon and Sullivan 1993), having children (Johnson and Scheuble 2002; Mehrabian and Piercy 1993), hiring and compensating employees (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004; Mason 2004; but see Levitt and Fryer 2004), electing political leaders (Box-Steffensmeier et al. 2003; Goldenberg and Traugott 1980), and so on. Names can reveal, among other things, a person's cultural heritage, nationality, and economic standing (Brennen 2000; Lawson 1996; Mehrabian 1992, 1997, 2001). In this sense, a name can be a blessing or a burden, for one's life chances are partly determined by the background clues conveyed by it. As a result, people use pseudonyms to manage the information their monikers impart to lovers, educators, consumers, employers, and constituents. (1)

For example, the importance of "moniker management" was evident during the 2008 presidential campaign. Specifically, Barack Obama's staff sought to minimize the likelihood of citizens associating him with Islamic extremists by diverting attention away from his Muslim-sounding middle name (Hussein), while his opponents, aware of Americans' current antipathy toward Muslims (Tapper 2007), used this moniker in an attempt to weaken his electoral support. Although the strategic use of public image is widely documented in the study of presidential politics (Nimmo and Savage 1976; for reviews, see Hacker 1995, 2004), to our knowledge, there are no empirical studies on the effect of name presentation on voters' support for Obama.

We address this research gap in the pages that follow. Drawing insights from studies of self-presentation (sometimes called image or impression management) and political advertising, and using an experiment embedded within the September 2008 wave of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP), we investigate whether subjects appraise Obama differently depending on whether his full name (Barack Hussein Obama) is present, or only his first and last name. We argue that the impact of name presentation varies according to a voter's preexisting beliefs about politics. These predispositions constitute a person's "political orientation," and we use party identification and political ideology as crude but reliable proxies for this orientation.

We find that Republicans and political conservatives (who are generally the least favorable toward the president) tend to lower their feeling thermometer ratings of Obama when his middle name is present. However, name presentation does not increase or decrease the probalility that these subjects will prefer Obama to McCain. Democrats and liberals, while typically the most loyal of Obama supporters, are relatively unresponsive to the experiment: their candidate evaluations tend not to change, regardless of how the president's name appears. Consistent with past research (particularly Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995), presenting Obama's middle name causes independents and moderates--those who are most likely to see the name game as "dirty politics"--to rate the president more favorably than they otherwise would. The differential impact of the experiment suggests that the name game succeeded in reinforcing the anti-Obama sentiments of rightward-leaning subjects, but it failed to convert subjects on the left, and it backfired among subjects with a more centrist orientation to politics. Despite its influence on candidate perceptions, name presentation had no effect whatsoever on a subject's likelihood of voting for Obama.

Obama Muslim Rumor

A "name game" took place during the 2008 presidential campaign. The offensive players in this name game were the party leaders, intellectuals, analysts, ideologues, activists, opinion leaders, journalists, and prognosticators who worked on behalf the McCain-Palin ticket. …

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