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.


    Both candidates have the same number of syllables. (13)
    WINNING candidate has more syllables than loser. (28)
    LOSING candidate has more syllables than winner. (12)

Election Year Winner Loser Winner syllables Loser syllables
1789 Washington (various) 3 n/a
1792 Washington Clinton 3 2
1796 Adams Jefferson 2 3
1800 Jefferson Adams 3 2
1804 Jefferson Pinckney 3 2
1808 Madison Pinckney 3 2
1812 Madison Clinton 3 2
1816 Monroe King 2 1
1820 Monroe Adams 2 2
1824 Adams Jackson 2 2
1828 Jackson Adams 2 2
1832 Jackson Clay 2 1
1836 Van Buren Harrison 3 3
1840 Harrison Van Buren 3 3
1844 Polk Clay 1 1
1848 Taylor Cass 2 1
1852 Pierce Scott 1 1
1856 Buchanan Fremont 3 2
1860 Lincoln Breckinridge 2 3
1864 Lincoln McClellan 2 3
1868 Grant Seymour 1 2
1872 Grant Greeley 1 2
1876 Hayes Tilden 1 2
1880 Garfield Hancock 3 2
1884 Cleveland Blaine 2 1
1888 Harrison Cleveland 3 2
1892 Cleveland Harrison 2 3
1896 McKinley Bryan 3 2
1900 McKinley Bryan 3 2
1904 Roosevelt Parker 3 2
1908 Taft Bryan 1 2
1912 Wilson Roosevelt 2 3
1916 Wilson Hughes 2 1
1920 Harding Cox 2 1
1924 Coolidge Davis 2 2
1928 Hoover Smith 2 1
1932 Roosevelt Hoover 3 2
1936 Roosevelt Landon 3 2
1940 Roosevelt Wilkie 3 2
1944 Roosevelt Dewey 3 2
1948 Truman Dewey 2 2
1952 Eisenhower Stevenson 4 3
1956 Eisenhower Stevenson 4 3
1960 Kennedy Nixon 3 2
1964 Johnson Goldwater 2 3
1968 Nixon Humphrey 2 2
1972 Nixon McGovern 2 3
1976 Carter Ford 2 1
1980 Reagan Carter 2 2
1984 Reagan Mondale 2 2
1988 Bush Dukakis 1 3
1992 Clinton Bush 2 1
1996 Clinton Dole 2 1
2000 Bush Gore 1 1






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