As President Obama ran for and won the 2008 election, more Americans started naming their baby boys "Barack," but as time has gone on, fewer people want to name their kid after the president. Obama shouldn't take it personally, though. This drop-off actually appears to follow a general pattern among presidential first names.
In 2009, the Social Security Administration noted that there had been just five Baracks born in 2007 and 52 in 2008. "Social Security's sophisticated predictive models are forecasting an increase well into the top 1,000 [most popular names] for Barack for 2009," the administration said in a press release. (The name had jumped thousands of spots, a sort of deceptive figure given that it was caused by only dozens of people.) Those popularity models, based on the 2011 data released last month, turned out to be wrong, and the number of babies named Barack has declined ever since his inauguration. Just fifteen Baracks were born in 2011. It's still more popular than in 2007, but things aren't looking up.
We were curious, though, whether other presidents with less common names faced similar trends, and it seems like they do. Using the Social Security Administration's archival data, we examined the number of babies named after various presidents over the same time span -- from one year before the election year to three years after -- watching especially for names that weren't already massively popular. The George Bushs, Bill Clintons, and John Kennedys probably can't have as much impact on their first name's popularity, since people have a variety of associations with those very common names. Names like "Barack" or "Lyndon" on the other hand tend to evoke just one person. As you can see in the chart below featuring the number of babies named after a few of the modern presidents each year, the names might pick up a boost after the president is elected but they decline from there. As with Obama, we began looking one year before their first election year (1979 for Ronald Reagan, 1951 for Dwight Eisenhower, etc.) and continued for the next four. We highlighted the peak year in red for each name. They might see a slight an increase (in Ronald Reagan's case, a very slight one) but it's always followed by some measure of decline.
What's also interesting, looking at the data, is that naming your kid after a president used to be much more popular. Look, for instance, at some of the presidential names from the progressive era (as compared with Barack down at the bottom.)
Names like Woodrow and Theodore don't start that far away from Barack one year before those presidents run for office. But they sure don't end up there. In 1911, for instance, just 121 babies were named Woodrow. In 1912, the year Woodrow Wilson ran and was elected, 1,843 Woodrows were born. It leveled off slightly in the following years, but still, the name stayed much more popular through those first years in office than it had been previously. The statistician Howard Steven Friedman noticed this trend, too, tracing it to Richard Nixon's presidency, after which, he wrote in The Huffington Post, a president's election was a net negative for his name's popularity. "Maybe this comes down to some simpler explanations such as the declining prestige of political leaders and increasing political partisanship," he posited. Maybe, but if it does, history shows it's not chiefly Obama's fault. And maybe Obama doesn't mind. If things continue as they are, he won't have to share his name with very many Americans for decades to come.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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