The Name Effect
How U.S. presidential elections are decided by the names of the candidates.
Since 1789, there have been 53 presidential elections.
In 40 of these, the leading candidates have had names that differ in the number of syllables they possess.
And in those 40 elections, the candidate with more syllables in his name has won 28 times out of 40 -- 70% of the time, in other words.
If a candidate were equally likely to win regardless of whether his name had more syllables than his opponent's, the probability of getting 28 or more wins out of 40 elections would be .008295.
So, the result is statistically significant at the 1% level.
Which by itself means very little, since one can always find coincidences in data that can be explained by bizarre and irrelevant variables. Correlation is not causality. (Although journalists, the EEOC, and product liability lawyers seem to think it is.)
In this case, however, something more than coincidence may be at work.
First, single-syllable names carry baggage. They are almost always nouns or verbs, and they often have unpleasant connotations. Consider Clay, Cox (cocks), Bush, Dole, and Gore as examples. In contrast, multi-syllable names are seldom common nouns or verbs, though Clinton is entering the language as a noun meaning a mendacious and pettifogging answer to a direct question. Taylor and Carter are the only multi-syllable presidential names that also function as common nouns or verbs in English, and Carter is but rarely used. Because a multi-syllable name usually has no common associations, it leaves the voter free to associate the name with whatever he likes.
Second, multi-syllable names are generally considered more aristocratic in their cadence. There are obvious exceptions to this rule -- Dukakis, which sounds alien and barbaric to a native English speaker, is the most obvious one.
People are rarely, if ever, good judges of their own moods, emotions, and motives. So, if you asked people why they preferred McCain to Bush or Gore, few would have answered "Because I liked his name better," but that might have been one of the main reasons. If McCain's name had been "Tree" or "Blood", he might still have been preferred to Bush and Gore, but presumably by a lesser margin.
N.B.: The 1824 election was decided in the House of Representatives; the leading candidates (Jackson and Adams), were tied on number of syllables anyway. In the 1888 election Cleveland (2 syl.)had a slight lead in popular votes but lost in electoral votes to Harrison (3 syl.). Tilden (2 syl.) polled more popular votes than Hayes (1 syl.) in the 1876 election, but lost on electoral votes. Gore (1 syl.) lost to Bush (1 syl.) in 2000 while gaining a very slight plurality in the popular vote, though neither candidate had a majority. So, whether electoral or popular vote is used as the criterion, the results are the same.
©Copyright 2000 Chuck Anesi all rights reserved