Presidential Names: Sometimes losers have winning names

January 26, 2016 nicknamer

By Nick Turner

It’s been said that history is written by the victors. But losers leave a legacy of their own.

That’s the case with U.S. presidential elections, in which fondly remembered statesmen often wind up as the runner-up — not the chief executive.

In an earlier column, I examined the names of American presidents (specifically, their surnames) and whether a candidate’s rise to power influences baby-name trends.

This time around I’d like to look at names of presidential losers.

In combing through the data, I made an interesting discovery. The candidate with the more popular first name doesn’t really have an edge. In fact, he has been slightly less likely to win the presidential election (at least in the 29 contests held since 1900).

Woodrow Wilson beat out William Taft despite having the more oddball name. Same with Calvin Coolidge.

When Truman defeated Dewey in 1948, it was the case of a Harry (ranked 57th in the Social Security database at the time) beating a Thomas (eighth).

Somehow a Lyndon (Johnson) enjoyed a landslide over a Barry (Goldwater). And let’s not forget when a guy named Barack handily beat a John in 2008.

In some cases, the losing candidate helped put a name on the map. That was true with Adlai Stevenson, a two-time loser to Eisenhower in the 1950s. Adlai is still a long-shot choice for most parents, but the name — along with its variants like Adley and Adlay — has grown more popular.

Walter Mondale was obliterated by Ronald Reagan in 1984, but the name Ronald has lost ground to Walter in recent decades. Though Ronald was more popular than Walter in the mid-‘80s, it’s now less so.

Since the start of the 20th century, the most common first name among presidential losers has been John, with seven of them making concession speeches over the decades.

After that, Eugene is the losingest name — with six defeats. In fact, Taft beat two Eugenes in 1908. Eugene Debs was the Socialist candidate, and Eugene Chafin represented the Prohibition party. Both men ran again in 1912. Sadly, no Eugene has ever been president of the United States (and given the current state of the name, that’s unlikely to change any time soon).

My favorite loser names date from the early 1900s. Silas Comfort Swallow was a Prohibition candidate in 1904 (it’s hard to beat the surname Swallow for someone advocating that people not imbibe). More than a century later, Silas is hot again. It cracked the top 200 in 2011, and the name has climbed in nine of the past 10 years. Prohibition, meanwhile, has not made a comeback.

Alton B. Parker, the Democrat in 1904, also had a long-dormant name that could have a resurgence. There were 161 baby boys named Alton in 2014, up from 150 the previous year.

The loser list is well populated with “Al-“ type names. Al Gore (born Albert) lost — barely — in 2000. In 1936, Alf Landon was defeated by FDR. And Al Smith was bested by Hoover in 1928. Can Alf make a return? I desperately hope so.

Theodore Roosevelt was both a winner (1904) and a loser (1912), and his first name has held up well over the past century. Others haven’t been so fortunate. Strom Thurmond ran in 1948 as a States’ Rights Democrat, and even won 39 electoral votes. Though he remained in the Senate until 2001, his legacy as a civil-rights foe probably hasn’t helped warm parents to his name. There were no babies named Strom listed in the Social Security database last year.

Obama, meanwhile, achieved something remarkable with his two victories. When he beat John McCain in 2008, he had the less-common first name (not surprisingly). But when he went up against Mitt Romney in 2012, Barack had become a more popular baby name than Mitt. Obama managed to win both the election and name-popularity contest.

Who knows what will happen this year, but we’ll probably get a president with a precedent-setting first name. No one named Hillary, Bernie, Donald or Marco has ever sat in the Oval Office (Ted Cruz’s first name is actually Rafael, so that would break ground as well). But one thing is certain: There will also be plenty of fresh names in the losing column.

About the author


Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.

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