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Tip To Candidates: Change Your Names

In politics, image trumps substance much of the time. Candidates will do virtually anything to adopt the image they believe voters want to see. So why don't more candidates change their names?

When the candidates for governor in Virginia take the stage today for The Washington Post debate in Annandale, it'll be a Terry, a Brian and a Creigh vying to take on a Bob in the fall election. A nifty new NameMapper tool demonstrates that we've got just what you'd expect: A choice of guys whose names peaked in the 1950s and 60s and have sunk down toward name oblivion in recent years. (Creigh never made any list of popular first names, ever, anywhere, so it's the outlier here, an attraction for those who like to go against the grain, or a turn-off for those who like solid American names they can trust. Like, um, Pontiac. But we digress.)

NameMapper, which uses birth records across the country to present in graphic form our collective choices of baby names, has nothing to do with politics, but I was taking it out for a spin (noticing along the way that the wife and I gave our kids names that became popular only a few years after we chose them, making us either brilliantly prescient about naming trends or sadly, if somewhat imprecisely, aligned with popular tastes, depending on how you look at it) and I realized that with the exception of our unusually-named president, we've got a slew of leaders around here whose names reflect the tastes of mid-century America.

Check out Terry (McAuliffe), a name that peaked in popularity in 1963, in Arizona. Our Terry was born in New York in 1957, so his parents were just ahead of the crowd. Ditto Brian (Moran): Our Brian was born in Massachusetts in 1959, but the name peaked in popularity in 1973, in Nebraska. Moran was actually made a Brian during a valley in the name's long history of success. Finally in this race, there's the Republican, Bob McDonnell, a square-jawed, Moral Majority type with a name that suits him. McDonnell, born in 1954 in Philadelphia, is of course actually a Robert, and that name peaked in 1960, in Rhode Island, so his parents were right in there on a name that was about as popular as any in U.S. history--a name that has all but disappeared in the naming sweepstakes nationwide.

While we're in the gubernatorial department, Virginia's Tim (Kaine) and Maryland's Martin (O'Malley) are also blessed, or saddled, depending on how trendy you like your names, with monikers that peaked decades ago and have sunk fairly low on the hit parade. Tim is nearly gone as a stand-alone name; Timothy is ever with us, but it has declined dramatically in popularity, having hit its peak in 1966, a name that was especially strong in the Rust Belt and Appalachian states (Kaine is from Minnesota originally.) Martin has an old-fashioned ring to it, and the numbers back up that impression--the name peaked in 1964 and was especially popular in the Southwest, though O'Malley is a D.C. kid, born in '63.

Speaking of the District, let's not leave out its boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose first name is unlike all the others we've looked at today--Adrian is a more popular boy's name today than ever before in recorded history. Its numbers go up and up every year, hitting #56 among boy's names nationwide in 2008, vastly higher than back in 1970, when the mayor was born in the District. Can such a frivolous factor really make a difference in how popular a politician is or who wins an election? We'd like to think not, but my colleague Jay Mathews has spent decades documenting the impact that candidates' height has on voting patterns (the taller the better, of course), and it's fair to conclude from the last several decades of elections that men with no hair and fat men face enormous obstacles in any election.

Our president won in spite of a name that won't ever make anyone's top 100 list, but of course he had to spend absurd amounts of campaign time poking fun at and explaining his own name, so these things do matter, even when we know they shouldn't. So, if these gents in Virginia want to win this year, what ought they do? The federal government's listing of most popular names puts Jacob, Michael, Ethan and Joshua atop the hit parade for 2008. Drill down to Virginia's numbers and the top five is the same except that William vaults to #1, displacing Michael. (Robert landed at #41 in Virginia last year; Brian at #73. No Terry, no Creigh.)

It's a great toy.

By Marc Fisher |  May 19, 2009; 8:26 AM ET  | Category:  Culture , Family , Politics
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Better option than changing the names of candidates lets get a new group of candidates than Brian I love my bro because of his access to beer and lobbyist money and Terry I have artificial turf in my Mclean home to pay homage to Bill the Great. Poor Creigh the best of the bunch but to get any attention he would have to be a porno star with the name to match. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap starring Creigh Deeds just doesn't work!

Posted by: sheepherder | May 19, 2009 9:32 AM

I prefer the New Mexico alternative of the early 1970's.

A guy named E.S. Walker got elected to the House running as Johnny Walker...and a state legislator ran for Governor and then Senator - unsuccessfully - running as Jack Daniels, and giving away small bottles of Jack Daniel's at campaign rallies. Jack lost to a guy named Pietro Vicci Domenici, who changed his name to Pete.

Considering the state of Virginia politics, it might be a good idea to run as Captain Morgan or Bud Weiser - because the economy alone is enough to drive a voter to drink.

Posted by: observer9 | May 19, 2009 2:39 PM

I'm not sure why NameMapper is any better a tool that the SSA baby names database. I trust the SSA one a little more because they have all the information for all babies that have had SSN applications. Great tool for name research.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 19, 2009 3:56 PM

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