The Seven-Letter Rule of Presidents’ Names

Jeff Fischer, Center for Democracy and Civil Society Senior Fellow, Georgetown Democracy and Governance Adjunct Lecturer

While nicknames have been generated for all United States Presidents, every president since 1900 whose last name possessed more than seven letters has been given an alternative branding identification, based upon name or initials. This could take the form of a nickname with fewer than seven letters, or the three-letter initials reflecting the first, middle, and last names. Presidents with fewer than seven letters have not been given such branding, while some presidents with seven letters have been branded and some of them have not.  

From 1900, William McKinley has eight letters in his name and no middle name. His running mate was Theodore Roosevelt. While McKinley was not known by the initials of WM, in the campaign of 1900 “Mack” (four letters) and “Teddy” for Theodore Roosevelt was a popular label for the Republican ticket.[1]

For the election of 1904, in addition to his nickname of Teddy, Roosevelt (nine letters), was also known in print as TR (also without a middle name). His successor in 1908 and competitor in 1912 was William Howard Taft. The name Taft (four letters) was fit and trim for headlines, even if its owner was known to appear otherwise. During the 1908 campaign, jokes emerged to reflect a perception of Taft’s over-developed fealty to TR.  The Democrats suggested the interpretation of the acronym, “TAFT,” was “Take Advice From Teddy.”[2] It was TR’s entry into the 1912 election that tipped the contest to Woodrow Wilson, a president with a six-letter name and no need for branding. In Wilson’s re-election campaign, his opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, also came in under the seven-letter bar. However, letter-play came in again by the Democrats popularizing a nickname, “E-vasion,” as Hughes’ middle name.[3]

The Warren Harding and James Cox contest of 1920 produced no burning need for branding. However, at seven letters, Harding was on the cusp and sometimes identified as WG.[4] In 1923, Calvin Coolidge became president upon WG’s death. At eight letters, it barely exceeds the basic requirement. While there was no initial acronym derived, the popular label of “Cal” (three letters) is the closest approximation with its modifiers of “Silent” or “Cautious.” Alliteration with the letter “C” was a popular kind of audio branding with one slogan proudly describing a “Careful Cautious Calvin Coolidge.”[5] If an initial brand had been employed, it would have been JCC, because Silent Cal was born John Calvin Coolidge.

The Herbert Clark Hoover and Alfred Emanuel Smith contest of 1928 also had no branding imperative, although “Al” was a nickname for Smith. With 1932 came the second Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, and the FDR branding is legendary. None of his opponents, Herbert Hoover, Alfred Mossman Landon, Lewis Wendall Willkie, and Thomas Edmund Dewey exceeded the seven-letter rule and did not have complementary campaign brands. Had Willkie (seven letters) been branded, he would have been known as LWW.

FDR’s successor, Harry S Truman had six letters and no brand except for an occasional HST, even though it was only six letters. However, the curiosity to point out here is that the S does not require punctuation, because it is not an abbreviation for any middle name.  The S stands for nothing. HST was followed by Dwight David Eisenhower (10 letters – the only other President with a ten-letter name was George Washington). However, President Eisenhower was not branded as DDE, but rather, as “Ike.” Had Adlai Ewing Stevenson, II (nine letters) won, he might have been branded as AES, but, then again, perhaps not.

On the cusp, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (seven letters) was known as JFK. His brother and fellow presidential aspirant, Robert Francis Kennedy, was branded as RFK. But, for Edward Moore Kennedy     , EMK was not a 1980 brand in his campaign against Jimmy Carter, but rather just “Ted” (three letters). 

Continuing the tradition, Lyndon Baines Johnson (seven letters) was popularly known as LBJ. His opponent Barry Goldwater (nine letters) created his own brand through the chemical symbols for gold and water and campaigned as AuH20. Richard Nixon as contender or incumbent was known as Richard Nixon, although the informal, Dick (four letters), was often used with the pejorative modifier “Tricky” unlike the more dignified adjectives applied to Coolidge earlier in the century. Nixon’s 1968 opponent, Hubert Horatio Humphrey (eight letters) used HHH as a campaign-marketing brand and logo rolled into one. Third party candidate George Corley Wallace, Sr., with eight letters would have been GCW, but that never caught on. And in 1972, although with eight letters to his name, George Stanley McGovern was never branded, and GSM would have appeared as inchoate as the campaign itself.  

Gerald Rudolph Ford (four letters), James Earl Carter (six letters), and Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters) were all safe from branding. However, in the 1980 Republican primary, JBC did emerge from time to time as the brand for John Bowden Connally, Jr. (eight letters). In 1984, Walter Frederick Mondale was in the seven-letter pivotal seat. However, WFM did not seem to have the same endearing flow as “Fritz,” (five letters) his campaign label.

George Herbert Walker Bush (four letters) and William Jefferson Clinton (seven letters), come under or score even with the seven-letter marker. However, had the 1988 election gone the other way, Michael Dukakis (seven letters) could have been MCD, although “Duke” (four letters) was a campaign moniker. Had Bill Clinton opted for branding from his seven-letter position, he would have been WJC, for William Jefferson Clinton. His re-election was against Robert Joseph Dole (four letters).

Both George Walker Bush and Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. were monosyllabic in both in last names (four letters). However, with the single letter “W,” Bush achieved a new benchmark in presidential acronym branding. This solitary character has come to identify a presidential Administration. In his re-election bid, Bush faced John Forbes Kerry, who, with five letters was under the threshold. However, had he chosen to brand, Kerry could have been the second JFK from Massachusetts.

Willard Mitt Romney (six letters) and Barrack Hussein Obama (five letters), both came under the seven-letter threshold. It should be noted that Obama is the only president whose name has ended in a vowel. Donald John Trump (five letters) versus Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, where she faced the same options as her husband. But her case would have translated into HDRC.  

In addition, acronyms can be employed outside the US presidential arena. For example, the congressional firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is known as AOC; and the president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is known by his initials, AMLO. 

Applying this rule for 2024, Joseph Biden and Donald Trump will, once again, need no branding. Democratic aspirant Marianne Deborah Williamson (ten letters) would be MDW. On the Republican side, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, Chris Sununu, Kristi Noem, Greg Abbott, and Mike Pompeo all fall below the seven-letter threshold. However, Ronald Dion DeSantis (eight letters) would be RDD, William Asa Hutchinson (ten letters) would be WAH or if he continues to drop his first name, AH, if he does not, Glenn Allen Youngkin (eight letters) would be GAY, and Vivek Ganapathy Ramaswamy would be VGR.

The motivations driving these abbreviations can be speculated to include the need for news organizations to be length-conscious in constructing headlines, and three letters fits in this kind of constricted space. Also, the candidates themselves desire name recognition and making that easy for voters to remember is a goal. In any case, if political identity becomes increasingly symbolic, branding may move toward more logo-type creations and less like those of a text-based nature. By the end of the 21st Century, perhaps there will be news showing some abstract symbol or logo, following the example of the pop singer Prince and his “Love Symbol,” with the phrase “the politician formerly known as…”.

[1] World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns, Eileen Shields-West, World Almanac, 1992, page 132

[2] Presidential Campaigns, Paul F. Boller, Jr. Oxford University Press, 1984, page 189

[3] World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns, Eileen Shield-West, World Almanac, 1992, page 151

[4] ibid

[5] World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns, Eileen Shields-West, World Almanac, 1992, page 161