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'Beto' and 'Bernie': The meaning of a single-name candidate

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2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke drew Trump's fire for his enthusiastic hand gestures. CNN's Jeanne Moos reports on the most active arms in politics.

Posted: Mar 15, 2019 3:20 PM
Updated: Mar 15, 2019 3:20 PM

As Beto O'Rourke prepared to enter the race for president Thursday, some media critics raised a concern:

Why do commentators and political talkers refer to candidates by their nicknames alone -- "Beto" or "Bernie" -- instead of using their more formal surnames? The fear is that by referring to candidates so informally, pundits and analysts imply a familiarity that is inappropriate.

The admonition was prompted by the case of O'Rourke, whose birth name is Robert but who goes by the nickname he's carried since childhood, Beto. As his national star rose during his unsuccessful race for the US Senate last year, his last name became superfluous.

That got me thinking about what it takes to attain this rarefied status, and what it means. Does the fact that Beto or Bernie are instantly recognizable names in our politics suggest anything about the viability of the candidates who bear them?

I think it may.

It is remarkable that O'Rourke, a three-term former congressman, has emerged from the rubble of a losing Senate race against Ted Cruz to become a highly anticipated challenger for the presidency. But the lanky former punk rocker touched a chord far beyond his state with an unorthodox campaign that relied heavily on his constant interactions with voters in Texas and with followers online.

Preaching a message of unity and reconciliation that resonated with many in the discordant age of Trump, O'Rourke took an ever-growing social media community along with him on his seemingly quixotic campaign against Cruz. Moment to moment, he shared the highs and lows -- his events, personal exchanges and his innermost thoughts.

That openness and transparency have helped make him a particular favorite with younger Americans, who have little patience for the smallness and contrivances of today's public debate. The result has been a staggering $80 million in contributions and a national following of supporters for whom the name Beto came to mean a better politics.

Though different in style and tone from O'Rourke, Sen. Bernie Sanders engendered a similar reaction from his rabid base of supporters in 2016. Reciting themes and advocating for major social and economic changes he has championed for decades, the shambling, tousle-haired septuagenarian became the unlikely tribune of young Americans weary of what they viewed as calculated politics and incremental change.

If early polling and staggering fundraising receipts are any indication, the base Sanders built in 2016 in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton remains strongly committed. They're still on the Bernie bandwagon.

The names Beto and Bernie are more than shorthand. They are brands that speak to authenticity and connection.

None of this is to say that either will emerge as the nominee.

Talented as he is, O'Rourke still hasn't been tested under the unremitting spotlight of a national campaign. He will have to prove he can build a campaign organization equal to the task. He will be poked and prodded to go beyond uplifting rhetoric and policy generalities to prove he is up to the job. His unscripted and spontaneous nature will come hard against the reality of life as a prospective president.

Sanders had the left largely to himself in 2016, and still lost to Clinton. This time, he has competition in a crowded field, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose long war on Wall Street and weighty policy prescriptions make her a particularly threatening rival for support from the populist left.

Both candidates will have to prove they can compete for African-American votes, a deficit that cost Sanders the nomination in 2016. And this field features two compelling African-American candidates, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. (Tellingly, "Kamala" is becoming another familiar name in the pantheon of candidates.)

Finally, there is another big shoe to drop. Former Vice President Joseph Biden, a well-liked and familiar figure in Democratic politics, remains an early front-runner should he enter the race.

Yet one should not underestimate the power of candidates who require no last name.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 32437

Reported Deaths: 2030
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9371546
Lake3347170
Cass15867
Allen135366
St. Joseph121834
Hendricks113567
Hamilton112391
Johnson1092104
Elkhart107028
Madison58259
Porter49521
Bartholomew48634
Clark47141
LaPorte41523
Tippecanoe3803
Howard37620
Jackson3681
Delaware35936
Hancock32327
Shelby32121
Floyd31539
Boone29335
Morgan27024
Vanderburgh2532
Montgomery23317
White2288
Decatur22431
Clinton2221
Grant19521
Noble19221
Harrison18821
Dubois1852
Henry1709
Greene16824
Warrick16528
Dearborn16421
Monroe16211
Vigo1507
Lawrence14623
Miami1391
Putnam1347
Jennings1284
Orange12422
Scott1183
Ripley1136
Franklin1068
Kosciusko971
Carroll932
Daviess8416
Marshall801
Steuben802
Wayne755
Newton7410
Wabash732
Fayette714
Jasper621
LaGrange622
Washington521
Fulton471
Jay460
Randolph453
Rush452
Jefferson421
Whitley412
Clay411
Pulaski400
Owen341
Sullivan331
DeKalb331
Brown331
Starke313
Perry260
Wells260
Huntington262
Knox250
Benton250
Tipton241
Crawford230
Blackford202
Switzerland190
Fountain182
Parke180
Spencer171
Posey160
Gibson142
Ohio130
Warren121
Adams121
Vermillion100
Martin90
Union80
Pike60
Unassigned0159

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 33439

Reported Deaths: 2044
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin5486243
Cuyahoga4137224
Marion262823
Hamilton2523131
Lucas2162233
Pickaway204635
Mahoning1367173
Summit1315160
Butler82626
Stark70091
Columbiana68250
Lorain65959
Montgomery61716
Trumbull54447
Belmont40312
Miami35130
Warren34419
Tuscarawas3264
Ashtabula31633
Portage31357
Medina31020
Delaware30213
Lake28712
Wood28045
Geauga26129
Wayne25650
Fairfield2484
Clark2316
Licking21811
Mercer2014
Allen20132
Clermont1975
Richland1893
Erie1635
Darke15619
Madison1447
Washington11819
Crawford1103
Morrow1041
Greene985
Ottawa9412
Putnam8714
Monroe7412
Sandusky7011
Hocking694
Ross672
Jefferson652
Auglaize643
Huron551
Williams521
Hancock481
Muskingum460
Union460
Clinton430
Hardin410
Shelby402
Wyandot372
Fayette370
Logan370
Fulton360
Coshocton340
Defiance332
Guernsey330
Preble311
Holmes291
Carroll293
Lawrence280
Champaign271
Brown251
Knox231
Highland191
Seneca192
Vinton191
Ashland190
Perry181
Athens181
Henry150
Scioto150
Paulding130
Jackson120
Harrison100
Adams81
Gallia71
Van Wert60
Pike60
Meigs60
Noble50
Morgan50
Unassigned00
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