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Name that president president

Some people become president, but most don’t. Why, exactly? Nobody really knows, but after exhaustive research the best explanation seems to me to be name recognition.

Consider the startling statistics. Seventy-three people have been president or vice president of the United States. Those 73 have only 64 surnames between them. To refresh your memory, two different presidents have shared the surnames Adams, Johnson, Harrison, Roosevelt and Bush, and let’s not forget vice presidents George Clinton (1805-1809), Richard Johnson (1837-1841) and of course Henry Wilson (1873-1875). (Amazing fact: George W. Bush may be president 43, but only 42 people have been president, because of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms. Isn’t this fun?)

So much name replication should make us suspicious. Could this pattern of naming just be a coincidence? We can in fact calculate the probability that two people in a group share the same name. There are more than 15,000 unique surnames in the United States today, so if we picked two Americans at random, the probability they’d have different surnames is 14,999/15,000. Adding a third person to our group makes the probability of three unique names 14,999/15,000 x 14,998/15,000: a little lower, but still very likely. Continuing the process, a random sample of 73 Americans gives 73 unique names 85 percent of the time, and in most other cases a single double-up. This is a far cry from the seven doublings and three Johnsons we actually observe, so clearly the distribution of presidential names departs significantly from randomness. One’s surname has a notable effect on one’s chances at higher office.

Why? My theory is the comfort Americans take in the familiar. Whether hamburger restaurants or presidents, the U.S. consumer trusts a well-known brand—just look at the plethora of Johns, James, Henrys and Williams that have graced the Oval Office. Additional support for this hypothesis comes from a tendency for former office holders to have the same names as well known cities: Cleveland, Dallas, Washington and Fairbanks. I modestly propose we call the number of names a president or vice president shares with a previous office-holder the Dickison Index (DI). The higher your DI, the better your chance of being president one day.

With the recent proliferation of media and marketing, one would predict this trend to be increasing, and indeed it is. In fact, a remarkable finding of my research is that for the last 50 years, the presidential race has been won by a candidate with a higher DI than their opponent. Surnames trump first names, and the more surnames the better. For example, Ronald Wilson Reagan (DI of 1) trounced Jimmy Carter (partial credit for James: DI of 0.5) and Walter Mondale (DI: 0). George Bush shared the first name of Washington, Dallas, and a previous Clinton (DI: 1), but while this beat Michael Dukakis (DI: 0) it was insufficient against William Jefferson Clinton (DI: 3, at that time a record). Bob Dole (DI: 0) of course had no chance against such a well-named incumbent. The current president shares three names with a predecessor (DI: 3), so one can see why he beat Al Gore, who only shares two names with a previous senator. John Forbes Kerry had strong brand recognition (DI: 1 + 0.25 for previous primary presidential candidate + 0.5 for initials). A good try, but nomenclaturally not quite enough.

Remarkable as this pattern is in its consistency, my theory does not explain the defeat of Adlai Stevenson (DI: 3) in 1952 and 1956 to Dwight Eisenhower (DI: 0). Did television begin exerting its branding influence in the 1960s? This puzzle would make a fruitful dissertation topic.

Lastly, could this model call future presidential races? Hillary Clinton (DI: 1) currently has the advantage here. Arnold Schwartzenegger (DI: 0) would have no chance, even with his movie-star branding. The dream candidate, with a DI of 2, is of course Harrison Ford.

Consider this when you procreate: in the United States, anyone can be top dog, but it sure helps if you’re called George, James or William (not Obama, JosZ or Susan). Parents, name that president.

Mike Dickison is a graduate student in Zoology. His column appears every other Wednesday.



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