Baby Naming: A History of Various Presidential Trends

Each day in the United States thousands of babies are born and named. Despite the wide belief that Americans are averse to politicians, baby-naming trends indicate that political leaders undoubtedly influence this very personal decision. I find that name trends in the years surrounding different presidential elections tend to follow various patterns: flash surges in popularity, popularity bumps, names that plummet, and those that defy a noticeable pattern. This paper concludes with a discussion of these naming patterns in relation to presidential popularity.

In a world where baby name options available to parents are virtually endless, popularity trends for any name, let alone names of political leaders deserve attention. It has long been argued that Americans show no great interest in national politics (Rosenberg, 1954; Mayhew ,1974; Achen, 1975; Fiorina, 1977; Verba and others 1997; Canes-Wrone and others 2002; Delli-Carpini & Keeter 1996,; Bennett, 1986). Despite this research bemoaning general lack of political interest, in this paper, I argue the American public does exhibit some mass interest in politics and uses political information in important, personal life decisions. The purposive behavior I examine is baby naming.

The choice of what to name a child undoubtedly involves many considerations: family names, parental preferences, class, ethnicity, popular culture, religious considerations, etc. Using data from the Social Security Administration from over the last 100 years, political factors also seem to find their way into the consideration of what to name a new child.

Baby Names as Data

As compared to voting choices and political surveys, naming choices offer a different picture of the influence of politics on the public. When voting, people have the choice of whether to vote or abstain, and then which of a variety of candidates they prefer. When having a child, parents are not offered such a choice; they must select a name rather than abstain, and the options are virtually limitless.

Political knowledge surveys, while incredibly useful in assessing the political proclivities of the American public, are artificial tasks that occur infrequently and most citizens never participate in such a survey. On the other hand, baby naming is a very different process; and one with much greater personal impact, and one that the majority of people experience at some point.

Using baby naming choices as a window to larger cultural processes is a somewhat rare, but not new strategy. French baby naming decisions have been studied to test for social diffusions of taste across economic classes of people (Besnard & Desplanques, 2001); similar studies have been conducted on names in the United States (Lieberson & Bell, 1992; Hahn & Bentley, 2003). Levitt and Dubner provide an argument rooted in economics showing that popular names among people with higher incomes generally trickle down to those with lower incomes in about 10 years (Levitt & Dubner, 2005). While influential in sociology and pop culture, scholarly research connecting baby-naming behavior to political referents is nonexistent.

While these data speak to some sort of awareness of politics when naming children, it is important to note that there is no way to know if people are purposively naming their children after Presidents or if they are mimicking names they hear as they become more common. One of the following two things likely occurs:

1.) Parents are paying attention enough to politics to choose a name on purpose and either other likeminded people do the same or others mimic those names.

2.) Collectively people become comfortable with the name of the President, but do not attribute a naming choice to him.

The evidence presented here points to the first situation, where people knowingly choose the name rather than just mimicry. First, presidential names pop up across the states in the year of or just after an election simultaneously, rather than as a slow word of mouth spread. A slow spread would more likely indicate the mimic naming mode. Second, political realities of states seem to affect naming choices in different ways. For example, from 1999 to 2000 the name “George” became more popular in all states that voted for George Bush in 2000 and in which George was a top 100 name — federal data is kept up to the top 1000 most popular names, while states maintain only up to the top 100 most popular names. In states that voted for Al Gore, the name George became less popular on average, save for in Rhode Island. Below I describe the methods for analysis and find that there are patterns that emerge that characterize presidential baby naming trends.

Methods

The data used here are the first and last names of Presidents from 1909 to the present. The rankings of popularity are calculated yearly by the Social Security Administration and are available on the Social Security website (http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/). The records are based on yearly Social Security card applications for births in the United States. In any given year the top 1000 most popular boy and girl names are reported such that the most popular name is given rank 1, second most popular is rank 2 and so on. Although parents cannot use punctuation marks, numbers, symbols, and profanity, the universe of non-obscene names using only alphabetical characters is huge.

The analysis here of baby naming trends is straightforward. The popularity rankings are displayed over time and the terms of Presidents are compared to these trends. After visualizing the popularity trend for each Presidential name, I group the names into categories by the trajectories of each name. While there is no personal data linking the political inclinations of the parents and their decision to name a baby after a president, there are aggregate measures at the state level that I use to check if naming trends are related to other observable political phenomena.

The most convincing proof that politics influences baby naming choice comes in what I call, “flash” popular names like Taft, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. These sorts of names only occur as a top 1000 name during the time that the same named Results for flash popular names are reported in figure 1. In this figure and all that follow, vertical bars are overlaid on the graph to mark when the President of the same name was in office. Unless otherwise specified, names reported are for boys.

When a name trend line disappears from the graph that indicates the name is no longer in the top 1000 most popular names. Figure 1 shows that names that do not make the top 1000 in one year can be ranked as high as the 320th most popular name the next year, as in the case of Taft. In all of these cases, the President’s name quickly comes onto the most popular 1000 and then subsides when they leave office. Indeed, none of the names in figure 1 have ever been popular before or after the specific President’s tenure. Even more impressive is that all of these names are not commonly thought of as first names, and indeed are the surnames of Presidents. The increased popularity of these names indicate not only that parents are likely looking the President when naming, but that they are even willing to go so far as to use their last names as given names.

A second type of naming pattern that emerges is the popularity “bump”. These names are not necessarily flashes on the top 1000, but the name trends exhibit a surge of popularity around the time a President of the same name is in office. These names include Woodrow, Wilson, Warren, Calvin, Franklin, Roosevelt and Kennedy as a boy name. The results are displayed in figure 2. While not as compelling as the flash names, the quick adoption of these names during the time of office still indicates that Americans are looking to — consciously or subconsciously — political realities when deciding how to pick a name.

Beyond the flash and bump popular names, there are names that significantly plummet in popularity during and after a president’s time in office. Names in this category are: Herbert, Harry, Truman, Dwight, Lyndon, Johnson, Richard, Gerald, Jimmy, Ronald, George, and Clinton. The speed at which a name falls from popularity varies as can be seen in figure 3. Herbert, Harry, Gerald, Jimmy, and Ronald were already on downward trends before the same named Presidents took office and continued to descend afterwards. Other names, like Truman, Lyndon, George, and Clinton saw a precipitous decline during the term of the same-named President.

Some names gain a quick flash in popularity, others enjoy a bump and others fall, and there are some notable oddballs that do not seem to fit into any other pattern. These names include Kennedy — female, Ford, Carter, Reagan male and female, and Bill. Figure 4 displays the trajectory of these misfits. Names like Kennedy and Reagan — which are generally surname — were long considered exotic as first names but in the 1990s their popularity markedly increased (Rosenkrantz & Satran 2006).

Ford is an interesting case where the name was popular prior to President Ford’s short time in office, but not during or after. Of course, a vice-president elevated to president does not enjoy the same type of campaign hype as a normal presidential candidate and so excitement around that name may be muted. The popularity of the name Ford rises with the production of the Ford model T and then eventually tapers off. Bill is a name that is less popular during President Clinton’s tenure, and the girl name Hillary also saw a rapid decline in popularity shortly after Clinton came into

Carter is a most puzzling example of naming trends. Since his time in office, President Carter has been one of the more ridiculed presidents, and he polls as one of the 4 worst presidents since WWII (Wilson, 2014). Despite this lingering unpopularity, the boy name “Carter” has surged in popularity and has one of the greatest rises of all presidential names in the sample.

There are Presidential names like John and William that remain in the top 20 most popular names regardless of time period. These names are apparently impervious to political fluctuations. Presidents William Taft, John Kennedy, and William (Bill) Clinton do not notably move the popularity of the names, but neither does American serial killer John Wayne Gacy. For the very popular (always top 20) names, no political effect is observed.

Lastly, names like Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, Barack, and Obama never see the top 1000. These never popular names serve as possible evidence against the idea that people turn to politics when choosing a name, but there have been some reports of names like Barack and Obama increasing in popularity, just not enough to be a top 1000 name (Lee, 2008).

Discussion

In an attempt to more finely understand the political undertones potentially driving naming choices I assembled the popularity of each name and the vote share for each President by state for all years present in the data. For each name-election pair I tested the correlation between the percentage of the two-party vote going to a presidential candidate and the difference in name popularity within the state during the year prior and the year post the election. Each state has a weight associated with it by the number of births reported in the state. Remember, state level data is only the top 100 names, so there are not data for some of the less popular presidential baby names. Table 1 displays the name-year pair and the correlations between a candidates’ vote getting ability and the ensuing change in popularity of their name.

Looking over the data from the 60s to today, I do find significant relationships between the popularity of a candidate and the popularity of their name for new babies. The relationship however is not consistent, and given the few instances in which a name reaches the top 100 in many states, thus allowing for analysis means that any conclusions ought to be quite tentative. For Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, I find that as a candidate’s share of the vote in a state raises, so too does the popularity of their name. For Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and William “Bill” Clinton however, the trend is reversed. It is important to note that naming decisions could be based on preferences or aversions to a name, whereby people who tend to like a candidate might be more apt to select his name or those who previously liked a name may then be put off by a current candidate. Without individual level decision making data it is impossible to know the process that tends to win out and therefore influences the greater trend, but the figures from the previous section still serve to show some sort of response to political figures.

Baby name data is well maintained and is updated every year so future work exploring the intricacies in this data as it relates to political phenomena may be a continuing research path. However, when less common names like Barack and Mitt occupy the top political ballots, finding parents willing to jump on a naming trend will be less likely. Nonetheless, society is taking note of politics and this awareness be it conscious or subconscious permeates through the naming patterns of children.

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Lindsey Cormack

I am an associate professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side