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What's in a Name? In Politics, Perhaps a Lot More Than One Might Think

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The old saying goes "What's in a name?" Actually, names can be very important in the political arena and have changed the course of American political history.

In 1946, after entering a race for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, future President John F. Kennedy used a creative tactic to muster an electoral advantage. A popular candidate in the race was Boston City Councilor Joe Russo. To siphon support from Russo, the Kennedy campaign persuaded and bankrolled a custodian domiciled in the district with no political experience or political aspirations to enter the race. His name was also Joe Russo. The City Councilor Joe Russo complained that someone had "seen fit to buy out a man who has the same name as mine." But the city councilor had no recourse. John F. Kennedy won the race.

In 1954, two years after the very popular John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate, a stockroom supervisor at Gillette Company named John Francis Kennedy entered the race for Massachusetts treasurer and receiver general. Despite his lack of political experience or a significant campaign war chest, Kennedy stunned the political establishment by winning a six-candidate primary and going on to win the general election. Kennedy's upset victory was likely due to low-information voters who thought that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for state treasurer. John Francis Kennedy did little campaigning for the post, spending just $300. John Francis Kennedy became known as "The Maverick With the Magic Name," a moniker bestowed upon him by Bat State politicians.

In 1960 John Francis Kennedy ran for governor the same year that John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president. John Francis Kennedy was not so lucky this time around. He lost the Democratic primary. Interestingly, in the race to succeed John Francis Kennedy for the post of treasurer and receiver general, two candidates named John Kennedy entered the race. They were John M. Kennedy and John B. Kennedy. However, both Kennedys lost the primary. It could be that even low-information voters did not believe that John Fitzgerald Kennedy would want to carry out the duties of state treasurer and governor while also serving as president.

In 2009, during the special election to fill the term of late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), speculation emerged that Kennedy's nephew, former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), would seek the Democratic nomination. However, Joe stayed out of the race, and the nomination went to Attorney General Martha Coakley. However, Libertarian-oriented Joe Kennedy secured ballot status as an Independent in the general election. During the campaign an unidentified recorded message was sent to some Democratic households urging voters to vote for Joe Kennedy. However, Kennedy's role in the general election was de minimis, as he pocketed less than 1 percent of the vote.

In 2008 one of the four finalists to be Barack Obama's vice presidential running mate was U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). On paper he was a redoubtable contender. Edwards exhibited widespread bipartisan appeal, representing a conservative congressional district in Texas where George W. Bush garnered 70 percent of the vote in 2004. Edwards was charismatic and made a name for himself in Congress as a champion of veterans' issues. He could have brought the ticket gravitas with veterans, blue-collar voters, and Southerners. There was one problem, however: His last name is Edwards. The Democratic Party had recently been embarrassed when it was revealed that former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina) had had an extramarital affair with film producer and campaign staffer Rielle Hunter, while Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was suffering from breast cancer. The Obama campaign chose U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware) instead of Chet Edwards. Chet Edwards later admitted to reporters that his last name was a major factor in his not being selected as Obama's running mate, averring, "I would have to think that a bumper sticker that said 'Obama/The Other Edwards' would be difficult."

In 1996 Democratic businessman Mark Warner challenged U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia). In an attempt to eliminate the confusion, Mark Warner's campaign produced a bumper sticker reading, "Mark, Not John." A fellow motorist spotted the bumper sticker on Mark Warner's car and asked him, "Is that a biblical reference?" At the end of a debate hosted by the Virginia Bar Association, the group's president, Douglas Rucker, quipped, "The Virginia Bar Association doesn't take political stands, but speaking for myself personally, I'll be voting for Warner and I encourage you to do the same."

In 2002 there were four candidates running in the Democratic primary for the office of treasurer and receiver general in Massachusetts. The race flew under the radar, being overshadowed by the hotly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary. The treasurer candidates had little name recognition. Two of the candidates shared the last name "Cahill." One candidate was State Rep. Michael P. Cahill (D-Beverly), and the other candidate was Norfolk County Treasurer Tim Cahill. To clear up any ballot confusion, Tim Cahill aired a very cute advertisement ending with his young daughter Kendra sitting on the porch next to her father and telling voters to "vote Tim for Treasurer." That campaign ad helped effectuate a Tim Cahill victory over Michael P. Cahill and the others in that race.

In politics elections are sometimes won by the clever use of a name, as evidenced by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1946 and John Francis Kennedy in 1954. Sometimes having a particular name at a certain point in time can sink one's political aspiration, as evidenced by Chet Edwards, whose last name was the same as that of the disgraced John Edwards. So what's in a name? Perhaps a lot more than one might think.