Photo Credits: Michael Vadon, Nathania Johnson, Mark Nozell

The question of whether or not it’s appropriate to refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” has been unresolved for at least a decade now. It’s offensive, argues Peggy Drexler. It’s fine, says Peter Beinart. It’s complicated, shrugs McClatchy DC.


Back in 2007, the Chicago Tribune’s public editor wondered whether use of the former first lady’s first name was overly familiar, even provocative: “Mrs. Clinton or Sen. Clinton or former First Lady Hillary Clinton are all proper ways to address or refer to her, but just plain Hillary is almost guaranteed to trigger a reaction.” Editor Jane Fritsch told him via email that she disliked the double-standard: “The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names.”


In 2016, that is no longer quite true. The vast majority of our presidential candidates—and at one point, we seemed to have as many as Catholic saints, enough for each of them to have a calendar day—are still referred to by their last names. But Clinton’s only rival for the Democratic nomination goes by “Bernie.”

The upshot is that on the Republican side, the race was among several last names (Trump, Rubio, Cruz), and on the Democratic side, it remains between two first names (Hillary and Bernie).


Previous other Republican frontrunners were also known by their last names, including Dr. Ben Carson and Governor John Kasich. Carly Fiorina’s folk seemed split on the issue, as though they were unsure whether they needed to make their candidate seem more human: in a schizophrenic move, they distributed both “Cruz-Fiorina” and “Cruz-Carly” signs during that one exciting week after the Texas senator declared that the California exec would be his VP if he were elected and before the senator dropped out. Fiorina herself tried to make “Carly” happen, but the name never seemed to catch on, much like the candidate herself.

Jeb!, the only Republican who successfully marketed himself by a name that was not his last, did so to separate himself from the family on whose resources and connections he depended to fund his disastrous campaign.


Yet this end result was not foreordained. In previous years, Trump, for example, has been widely called “the Donald.” An official, popular Reddit campaign thread even uses that moniker in its address. However, like his competitors, the Donald chose to package himself as Trump.

Trump’s name became particularly relevant when comedian John Oliver started a popular movement to “make Donald Drumpf again.” Oliver claims “Drumpf” was Trump’s family’s name before Donald’s forebears changed it, believing—with, it seems, some justification—that the name “Trump” would go over better with Americans. Indeed, the name, with its associations of winning and power, has gone over well with large swaths of the population.

“Bernie,” by contrast, is less a winning, powerful name than an everyman moniker along the lines of Joe the Plumber. It complements Senator Sanders’ image as a rumpled populist who once eked out a living as “a shitty carpenter” and who still favors substance over style. As Politico put it in a lengthy profile:

The issues. The issues. Stick to the issues. The rich are too rich. Those with power have too much. The middle class is withering. Inequality is a crisis, and the system is rigged. With Sanders, what you see is what you get, insist the people who know him best — and that’s almost all you get.

In many ways, the profile makes clear, Sanders keeps constituents at arm’s length, remaining mum on his personal life. The use of a nickname like “Bernie” becomes necessary to create any sense of closeness.

Secretary Clinton’s campaign’s deliberate use of “Hillary” played a similar role in 2008 as part of a rebranding effort to reveal her more human side.

Clinton’s friends, all the thousands of them, have been saying for years that they wished people could see the Hillary They Knew, the person few get to see behind her public casing: the great boss, the chatty girlfriend, always the first to call when a parent dies or a baby is born. She possesses, they swear, that most cherished cachet among politicians — the sense of normalcy

Clinton and Sanders both have decades of public service behind them and serious cred as policy wonks. It makes sense that they need to cultivate more approachable personas. By contrast, Cruz, Rubio, and Trump put together had enough governing experience to fill a Dixie cup. Democrats may indeed be less formal, the kind of people who as students were more comfortable calling teachers by their first names. But perhaps the real distinction between them and their Republican opponents is that Cruz, Rubio, and Trump needed all the authority they could muster in order to be taken seriously as applicants for the most important job in the land.

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Ester Bloom is a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and an editor at The Billfold.

Additional photos via Wikimedia Commons.

Stories Discussed
“Bernie Sanders Has a Secret” (Michael Kruse, Politico, July 2015)
“Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton” (Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine, July 2015)