For another sort of curmudgeon, using a first name commits a sin even greater than rudeness—the sin of celebrity. If you can’t sing like Beyonce or Liberace or score like Pele or Neymar, how dare you?
Not since Ike—just Ike, and not Dwight David Eisenhower—have Americans elected a single-named candidate. Voters liked the Gipper, but they didn’t vote for “Ronald.” JFK? Sure. “Jack”? Not so much.
Hillary, Jeb, and Rand (you three don’t mind if we call you that, do you?) share two things that might explain their decisions to break with convention. One is that they use distinctive first names. There’s only one Rand; in fact, he was Randy until his wife shortened it. Jeb is actually an acronym for his full name, John Ellis Bush. Hillary is a somewhat more common name, but unusual enough that everyone recognizes when it’s used to refer to her. But who the heck is Scott? Or Chris? (Floridians sometimes refer to their junior senator as “Marco,” but outside of the Sunshine State, he’s more commonly known as Rubio.)
Ike aside, even candidates with similarly unusual names have tended to avoid the temptation. I can’t find any evidence that Adlai Stevenson, surely the man with the most distinctive name in recent presidential history, campaigned using it. As Howard Fineman noted on Twitter, now-Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander tried to use a mononym in his 1996 run for president. He even used an exclamation mark, a la Jeb. (Not coincidentally, the Lamar! campaign shared a message guru, Mike Murphy, with Jeb! 2016.)
Perhaps more importantly, all three candidates represent political dynasties. Clinton wants to assume the job her husband filled from 1993 to 2001; Bush wants to succeed both his father and brother as president. Rand’s dad Ron was never president, but he served several terms in Congress, ran twice for the Republican presidential nomination, and was the Libertarian Party’s nominee in 1988.
Using a first name only can be a useful tool for a dynastic candidate. It helps to establish the candidates as their own individuals, and creates at least a little distance from their predecessors. All three of these candidates have reasons to seek a little distance. Hillary, although eager for voters to remember the prosperity of the 1990s, is running significantly to Bill’s left on issues from trade to crime to LBGT rights. Rand has a tortured relationship with his father’s libertarian base—he wants to capitalize on the Ron Paul organizing machine, but has been at pains to prove he doesn’t agree with his dad on everything (especially when his dad is, for example, flirting with Trutherism.) Jeb, too, wants to use the organizing and fundraising prowess of his family without making people think they’re going to get the second coming of George W. Bush. Fear of “Bush fatigue” seems to be the most common explanation for the peculiar, exclamatory “Jeb!,” to the annoyance of his advisers, who trace his long history of employing it. Of course, Jeb has always been concerned about showing that he was his own man and had worked for what he’d earned; he just has a different reason to distance himself from the Bush surname now than he did before.