The Name Game in Politics


The Name Game in Politics

Name recognition is a highly desired element in political campaigns. Candidates spend thousands, even millions of dollars and labor arduously for years to develop and maintain it. The reason for it can be summed up in the old disc jockey axiom that people don’t know what they like, they like what they know.

Accordingly, politicians and political hopefuls focus on ways they can get their name out and firmly embedded in the public’s subconscious. While there is the typical media-based marketing/advertising and news story/coverage approach, there are several other ways of cultivating this invaluable commodity.

From town council in rural West Virginia all the way up to candidates pursuing the presidency of the United States, the age-old maxim, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” applies. What was once referred to as “the good old boys network” is now known simply as networking.

In the South, you’re “good people”, in the Mob you’re a “good fella”. The introductions you receive and the bona fides that are provided by your friends and associates open the door to potential supporters and contributors. They in turn grant you access to their network of friends and associates and the compounding effect of this quickly lays the foundation for a groundswell of name recognition. That in turn creates buzz and sparks people’s interest and curiosity.Giving in to the cat’s fatal flaw, people reach out, seeking information on or access to the source of all the hoopla. While this has been common knowledge in the realms of business and politics for decades, you now see it moving into the mainstream of society through the exponential explosion of Internet social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Some rookies to the political game come with pre-existing name recognition.

They may be prominent business owners or entrepreneurs, sports figures, media personalities or even celebrities and actors. They have a distinct advantage over nondescript neophytes. In addition to having immediate name recognition, their networks are both deep and broad. The access to potential support and resources dwarfs that of many of their peer candidates, particularly those of local single issue grassroots crusaders.

When discussing name recognition, there are really three levels of it to consider. The first is what can be referred to as the “inside the game” level. This encompasses what is often known as “inside the beltway” gossip and news. Name recognition on this level means being known by the players and followers of the political game. Governmental bureaucrats and functionaries, elected officials and their staffs, political and media consultants, party activists and bosses, movers and shakers and political junkies inhabit this level. Rumors and gossip flow freely, trial balloons are prepped, feelers are put out and names are floated here. Sub rosa campaigns are conducted and waters are tested at this level long before candidacies are ever publicly announced. This is insider’s ball and name recognition on this level, while clearly significant in particular circumstances and circles, may not necessarily translate into name recognition at the next level; the general public.

While every politician longs for immediate and deeply rooted name recognition among the general public, this actually entails two levels, not one. The first of the two general public levels involves recognition of the standard full name. New Yorkers immediately know who Michael Bloomberg is, Washingtonians know Marion Barry, West Virginians know Robert Byrd, particularly since half of the state is now named after him. Though this is a highly sought after asset, it is generic in that the recognition occurs only after both the first and surnames have been identified. While someone’s title, such as Mayor, Senator or Governor, maybe substituted for their first name, the recognition is still triggered by a full name, albeit in a titular form. As significant and critical as this is, it pales in contrast to the third level of name recognition; rock star.

The pinnacle of name recognition that every candidate prayers for and every consultant promises they can reach is rock star. Originally this was known as master or classical status. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Chopin are timeless masters all and were the super stars of their age. While politicians may achieve this status with their surname, particularly in the case of presidents, there is an even more rarified level of name recognition, the aforementioned rock star status.

Rock star status is reached when name recognition is triggered by only a single, and usually the first name. When I say Bono, Cher, Sting, Madonna, Elvis, Sinatra or even Pavarotti, you immediately know who I’m referring to. So powerful is the impact and influence of this level of name recognition that R&B and hip hop artists like Beyonce and Ludacris have adopted single name nom de guerres in its pursuit. To command this level of name recognition in politics is a strategic advantage of unparalleled proportions. The ability to use a single name on billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers and in print ads and obtain name recognition is a tremendous boon to campaigns. Think of Rudy, Newt, Arnold, Barack, Hillary, Jay, W. All of them are immediately recognized, nothing more need be said.

One cannot overstate the power and advantage that rock star status conveys to a candidate, even in a local race. I live in a city of roughly 50,000, not a small town by any means, but not a metropolis either. Nonetheless, when you mention Danny, everyone immediately knows you’re referring to the mayor. While he chose distinct and uncommon colors for his campaign material, the focal point was his first name in large, bold letters. While the Mayor attained this status over the course of a number of decades that included his being a successful local business owner, media personality, community theater actor, county sheriff and member of the state legislature, politics is replete with officials and candidates with similar resumes that do not enjoy anything near this level of name recognition. Accordingly, when the question is asked what’s in a name, in politics, the answer is often victory.

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