What’s in a name? For David Evans, a surprise showing at the polls

06/10/2014 7:00 PM

06/11/2014 12:08 PM

Republican David Evans, a little-known candidate for state controller, boosted his prospects in last week’s primary election by including his occupation (“chief financial officer”) and incorporating a ballot statement (“Most qualified for Controller.”)

Some political experts suspect that Evans, whose surprising performance put a trio of far better-known politicians on their heels, was also aided by something more fundamental: his name.

An accountant from California City who had little money to run a campaign, Evans on Tuesday trailed Democrats John A. Pérez, the former Assembly speaker, and Betty Yee, a Board of Equalization member, for the right to advance to the general election against projected first-place finisher Ashley Swearengin, the Republican mayor of Fresno. He was 18,610 votes behind in his bid for a top-two slot as of 5 p.m., with hundreds of thousands of ballots left to count.

“A lot of voters went into the voting booth and just had no idea what the controller does and who is running,” said Neil Visalvanich, an expert in electoral and race and ethnic politics in California.

“Democrats were split among Yee and Pérez. And Republicans were largely split among Swearengin and Evans,” he added. “Those who voted for Evans probably just saw his name ... a generic, white-guy name.”

Regardless of the specific factors involved, political consultants say Evans’ stronger-than-expected performance indicates the state’s new primary system can produce seemingly random outcomes, especially when voters know little about the candidates and are presented with a wide menu of choices. Academics who have studied voting behavior are convinced voter bias contributes to the mix.

Visalvanich, a doctoral candidate at UC San Diego who is set to begin as a visiting professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, conducted experiments to isolate for race, including using the same biography but rotating photos of white, Asian, Latino and African American candidates to gauge voters’ preferences. He also used real-world survey responses – coded for race – to measure voter opinion of congressional candidates.

Visalvanich’s research suggests that white voters view African American and Latinos as more ideologically extreme and not as competent, making them less likely to support them. He concluded in one study that “racial bias is still prevalent in this ‘post-racial’ era.” Other studies show voters with little other knowledge of the candidates prefer voting for a man instead of a woman.

Names and stereotyping based on ethnicity and gender have played important roles in political contests. A Harvard University researcher found that racial animus cost President Barack Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the popular vote in his first run for the nation’s highest office.

In California, strategists see a unique dynamic given the difficulty statewide candidates have in breaking through to voters. Early polling in the governor’s race had Republican Neel Kashkari tied with the poorly funded Andrew Blount but well behind Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. Only after Kashkari began far outspending the entire GOP field did he pull away from the pack.

“There is something to the names, no question,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant. “The less information voters have, the more they start looking for clues, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously.”

He pointed to the gubernatorial candidates as well as one of the Republicans that unsuccessfully ran to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera in Sacramento County. Former Rep. Doug Ose secured the second top-two slot. “I think Igor Birman probably had a tough time being a guy named ‘Igor’ on the ballot,” Stutzman said.

Political candidates spend big money to boost their name identification with voters, from distributing bumper stickers and lawn signs to running radio and TV ads. In the controller’s race, Swearengin dropped $345,000. Evans spent about $600. He attributed some of his relative success to his daughter’s get-out-the-vote skills on Facebook and Twitter.

Name recognition has direct and indirect effects on candidate support, but it matters primarily in the absence of more relevant information, said Cindy Kam, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

That’s important because so-called low-information elections have become the rule rather than the exception.

“In that context, people will go with what is familiar. And for some voters, names of Anglo origin may be more familiar,” said Kam, whose research focuses on public opinion and political participation and psychology. “(Evans) is the one candidate who stands out in some voters’ minds as the prototypical politician.”

Swearengin outperformed her rival everywhere the campaign spent money on mailers and radio ads, said Tim Clark, her chief strategist. In regions where Swearengin’s campaign was not present, Evans won, including most inland California counties north of Sacramento.

But Clark said that had little to do with his name and gender.

“I guarantee voters didn’t give it much thought,” he said. “He had the best ballot title for the seat, and that’s what propelled him.”

Clark noted that the brief descriptions have helped keep races tight in the past. In 1994, Republican Tom McClintock persuaded a judge to allow him to use “taxpayer advocate” on the ballot for state controller. He lost to Democrat Kathleen Connell by less than 200,000 votes.

While occupation can help, there is little research showing a class of jobs that voters overwhelmingly prefer or reject, said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. He said voters choosing between Swearengin and Evans were essentially tossing a coin.

“I don’t think we need to be wracking our brains for all the reasons he did so well,” Kousser said. “He did well because he was the only male Republican in the race. He was one of only two Republicans in the race. And he got a little less than half of the Republican vote.”

Still, the close outcome provides an opportunity to explore the growing body of research into how candidates improve their chances.

Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University, explained that Evans’ last initial is in the first half of the alphabet, whereas his three top competitors’ last initials fall in the latter half. More people have last initials in the first half of the alphabet, Krosnick said, and research shows that voters tend to have better feelings about letters that are in their own initials.

Or, the answer may be significantly more simple.

Evans is easy to read and pronounce and is common. All this creates what psychologists call “perceptual fluency,” which leads to positive feelings, Krosnick said. In contrast, Swearengin requires more mental effort to read and pronounce and is not so familiar. All that breeds a subtle feeling of disliking, he said.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said in all his years of observing state politics, he’s never seen a result like it.

After reviewing preliminary results, DiCamillo said the fact that he left Evans out of pre-election polls was a “serious omission.” Media, pollsters and debate organizers often take their cues from one another, creating an echo chamber that some political newcomers believe is unwelcoming.

DiCamillo said he is reconsidering whom to include in future polls given the new primary system in which the top two candidates advance regardless of party.

“It does raise the question that in these low-turnout elections you may need to cover yourself on just about everybody,” he said.

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