Will Dave Brat’s Weird Name Cost Him at the Ballot Box?

ASHLAND, VA - APRIL 26: College economics professor and Republican candidate for Congress David Brat poses on the campus of Randolph-Macon College April 26, 2014 in Ashland, Virginia. Brat went on to a surprise defeat of incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 primary. (Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images)
Photo: Jay Paul/Getty Images

There are a lot of interesting things about Dave Brat. He beat Eric Cantor, which nobody expected. He has an unusual, right-wing-evangelism-infused views on economics. He also has a funny, silly last name. Will that last part cost him in his general-election contest against Jack Trammell, or in later elections he might face? Research suggests it might.

Most researchers’ favorite example of the effect of unusual political-candidate names took place in 1986, during the Illinois Democratic Primary, in which Mark Fairchild beat George Sangmeister for lieutenant governor and Janice Hart beat Aurelia Pucinski for secretary of state. The winners were little-known LaRouchies with, shall we say, interesting beliefs (Fairchild favored mandatory AIDS tests and forming citizens’ posses to hunt down drug dealers), prompting media speculation that their “nice” names had given them a leg up over their opponents’ more tongue-twisting, “ethnic” ones.

A study in which college students were asked to choose between Fairchild and Sangmeister without being given any information but their names seemed to confirm a name effect — the kids chose Fairchild. As soon as they were given information about the candidates’ platforms, though, the name preference was no longer statistically significant, meaning platform mattered more than name.

The researchers themselves noted that this was not a real-world situation for a variety of reasons, but it’s still instructive, and it fits into something political scientists have known for awhile. As Adam Alter, a psychologist at NYU who has studied name effects, explained in an email, “When people aren’t sure what the candidates believe, they’re often swayed by irrelevant information, like the candidates’ names.”

So one clear implication for Brat’s upcoming contest is that low-information voters will choose the all-American-sounding Trammell over the bratty-sounding Brat. “It wouldn’t be outlandish to expect that the negative connotations of his name would hurt him,” Danny Oppenheimer, a psychologist at UCLA, said in an email. “The fact that his name is Brat would create an immediate (small) negative reaction. It’s unlikely to be a big effect, but it could play a role in a close race.” (For what it’s worth, while many think Trammell doesn’t stand a chance in a conservative district, ThinkProgress argues the election could be a contest.)

But things aren’t that simple, since other name effects could be at work here. For one thing, some research has shown that candidates who appear at the top of the ticket enjoy benefits over those who appear farther down — Brat could gain an advantage simply by sitting above Trammell on ballots. And Oppenheimer explained that research he’s conducted with Anuj Shah has shown that candidates with easier-to-pronounce names can gain up to a 5 percent vote bonus as a result. Brat is marginally more pronounceable than Trammell, but neither name is challenging, so on this front, things might be a toss-up.

One of the consistent findings in this sort of research, though, is that the more information voters have — whether platform, party-identification listings on the ballots, or anything else — the less important this name stuff becomes. So if Brat is at all concerned that his weird name will be a liability, the easiest solution is to flood his already-sympathetic district with information about who he is and what he believes. Surely that effort is already underway.

Will Dave Brat’s Weird Name Cost Him Votes?