The Name Game

With the Social Security baby-name database, one can find the popularity* of a newborn’s name in any year from 1880 through 2011. Armed with the database, I set out to determine whether the relative popularity of presidential candidates’ names had any bearing on the outcome of the 33 elections of 1880-2008. Here is what I learned from an analysis of the names of the two leading candidates** in each of the 33 elections:

  • The candidate with the more popular name — in the year of the election — won only 15 times out of 33.
  • Ten of the winners with the more popular name were Republicans.
  • Ten of the 18 winners with the less popular name were Democrats.
  • The Democrat had the less popular name in 20 of the 33 elections.

The moral of the story: It is a slight disadvantage to have a popular name. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to have weird names. This latter tendency confers a slight advantage on Democrat candidates.

What about 2012? Willard (Mitt Romney’s first name) has not been in the top 1,000 since 1989, but it was in the top 1,000 in every year before that — ranking as high as 58th in 1915. Barack, needless to say, has never been in the top 1,000. It seems likely that Willard is somewhat more popular than Barack, even now.***

But Mitt — like Grover, Woodrow, and Calvin — is the name in the political arena. And I have no reason to believe that Mitt is any more popular than Barack. If Barack is the less-popular name, that might count as an advantage for Obama. But a less-than-dismal performance in a debate would do him more good than his weird name.

* Restricted to the top 1,000 boys’ names and the top 1,000 girls’ names in each year.

** All of them Republicans and Democrats, except in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive ticket and was the runner-up to Woodrow Wilson.

*** It does not seem that presidents’ first names become more popular during their time in office. The rank of Grover (Cleveland) went from 20 in 1884 (when Cleveland was first elected) to 47 in 1892 (the year of Cleveland’s second victory). Benjamin (Harrison) dropped from 25 in 1888 to 42 in 1892. Woodrow (Wilson) barely budged, going from 192 in 1912 to 190th in 1916. Herbert (Hoover) was 25 in 1928 and 44 in 1932 (another victim of the Great Depression, no doubt). Franklin (Roosevelt) went from 66 to 65 to 87 to 112 (in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, respectively). Dwight (Eisenhower) was 123 in 1952 and 139 in 1956. (And, lest you think that Dwight should have been a Democrat, remember that his opponent was the more weirdly named Adlai — or Adelaide, as some wags called him.) Richard (Nixon) fell from 8 in 1968 to 14 in 1972 (and, unsurprisingly, kept falling steadily thereafter, to 127 in 2010-2011). Ronald (Reagan) went from 58 in 1980 to 67 in 1984. George (Bush I and II) declined from 78 (1988) to 95 (1992) to 130 (2000) to 146 (2004). George has come a long way (down) since Washington was first in the hearts of his countrymen.

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