With the Democratic convention in the books and the party's 2004 ticket good to go, it's time to do the election year math that really matters. No, not electoral votes in the South or swing votes in battleground states. This is the crucial math: the syllabic arithmetic of a presidential ticket. It's the syllables, stupid.
"Kerry-Edwards." Two syllables and two more. If history is any indication (and lord knows it should be), Bush faces long odds purely on the basis of his own syllabic dearth. How common are presidents with one-syllable last names? Bush, yes, and Bush-41 of course, but how many others? Just one in the last 120 years: Taft. There have been nine one-syllable losers over that same period. Political linguists still wax wistful on the mid-18th century's golden age of one-syllable presidents: Polk, Pierce, Grant (twice, the only one-syllable two-termer in our history), and Hayesbeginning in 1844, five of nine elections over a 32-year period.
Kerry, with a one-syllable advantage over the incumbent, was on solid ground even before his choice of running mate. In the last 31 elections going back to 1880, a presidential candidate has overcome a syllabic deficit only five times: Cleveland (1892), Taft (1908), Johnson (1964), Nixon (1972) and Bush (1988).
But the choice of Edwards muddies the waters. On the surface, Kerry's two-syllable selection is safely in the mainstream. Although New Mexico's Bill Richardson was often mentioned as a possible VP candidate, those of us reading the syllabic charts knew it would never happen. We haven't had a three-or-more-syllable elected vice president since Teddy Roosevelt as McKinley's No. 2 in 1900. And we know how well that worked out: McKinley was dead in less than a year.
But although Kerry and Edwards separately look syllabically reasonable, things get dicey at the ticket level. By choosing Edwards, Kerry puts in front of the voters a four-syllable ticket to the Republicans' three. Is this winning electoral math? Between 1880 and 1960that's 21 electionsa ticket with fewer syllables never won. But the balance of syllabic power shifted soon after. Since 1964, the winning ticket has had fewer syllables than the losing ticket six out of 10 times, and in five of those six cases the winning syllable-deficient ticket was a GOP one. It appears that syllables, once a clear advantage for both parties, have turned into a liability, especially for Democrats.
This bodes poorly for the challengers, but let's not forget that a presidential election is about more than syllables. It's also about enunciation, that warm feeling you get when the sound of a presidential ticket rolls nicely off the tongue. Kerry has chosen well herethe 'y' sound that ends his name segues fluidly into his ticket mate's vowel opening (think "Kerree-Yedwards"). "Bush-Cheney," on the other hand, is burdened with a tragically abrupt articulatory chasma grinding shift of gears in the transition from "sh" to "Ch." It just doesn't flow without a pause and a breath (and possibly a cocktail, with time out for a fanciful claim about the link between Iraq and 9/11). But there are remedies for the incumbent: Dump Cheney in favor of someone whose name starts with a vowel, or a sympathetic consonant (Bushrice), or, better yet, a guy named Marvin Whacked.