GC Study Finds that Name Popularity Proved to Be a Predictor of the 2016 Presidential Election

March 29, 2017

March 29, 2017What's in a name? According to Stefano Ghirlanda, a professor of psychology and biology at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College, perhaps the ability to foreshadow the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Media contact: Tanya Domi, tdomi@gc.cuny.edu, 212-817-7283; Ernesto Mora, 718-951-5883, EMora@brooklyn.cuny.edu

Graduate Center Study Finds that Name Popularity Proved to Be an Unusual and Accurate Predictor of the 2016 Presidential Election

The Names 'Hillary' and 'Hilary' Took a Unique, Precipitous and Unabated Fall in Popularity During Hillary Clinton's Time as First Lady

NEW YORK, March 29, 2017 - What's in a name? According to Stefano Ghirlanda, a professor of psychology and biology at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College, perhaps the ability to foreshadow the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The study, "Trend in First Names Foreshadowed Hillary Clinton's Electoral Defeat," looks at popularity trends for 630 commonly chosen female names and found that 'Hillary' and 'Hilary' experienced a 90 percent decline in selection after 1992--the year that Hillary Clinton became first lady. Data show that the precipitous drop was unique among naming trends and that the decline likely evidenced a bellwether for voters' reaction to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential candidacy.

While it's impossible to identify a precise cause of the name's steep drop in popularity, the tight correlation of timeframe, events and the tone of news coverage of the former first lady suggests that voters had a negative opinion of Hillary Clinton, which they expressed it in part by rejecting her given name as a choice for their newborn females.

"I can't be certain the decline is a direct result of the 1992 presidential election, but when I looked at records around the same period, I couldn't find any other 'Hilary' or 'Hillary' that was in the news," said Ghirlanda. "I believe this research ultimately shows that naming trends can be influenced by cultural events, and the trends themselves can provide insight into cultural moments that may have long-term effects."

Using data from the U.S. Social Security Administration, Ghirlanda first analyzed selection trends for both iterations of 'Hillary' between 1880 (the first year SSA data was available) and 2015 (the most recent data). He found both versions of the name had been growing in popularity among newborn females for two decades, but then experienced a 10-fold drop in selection between 1992 and 1997.

Next, Ghirlanda compared the popularity cycle for both iterations of 'Hillary' to other top female names - 630 in total. He found that the decline of 'Hillary' and 'Hilary' was not only significantly steeper, but also in reverse of the typical popularity pattern in which names rise more quickly than they fall from use.

To further ensure his data was registering a unique trend, Ghirlanda also compared popularity trends for both iterations of 'Hillary' to those for the names of the 25 first ladies who served between 1884 and 2012. He found that names associated with first ladies did exhibit some unique fluctuations around election periods. For example, 'Jackie' and 'Jacqueline,' both associated with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, had an uptick of about 20 percent around the time President John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, and the name 'Rosalynn,' associated with First Lady Rosalynn Carter, experience a downtick of about 40 percent following President Jimmy Carter's election in 1976. None of the fluctuations, however, was as significant as what was observed with either versions of 'Hillary.' Additionally, the data showed that 'Hillary' became less popular among both Democrats and Republicans in all 50 states.

Interestingly, Rosalynn Carter, whose first name experienced the next largest negative popularity fluctuation, was a self-identified untraditional first lady who regularly sat in on presidential cabinet and policy meetings and was among her husband's main advisors. The steep decline in use of both 'Rosalynn' and 'Hillary' may indicate Americans are specifically uncomfortable when first ladies step outside of their traditional role as entertainer-in-chief and into top leadership roles, speculated Ghirlanda.

While Ghirlanda found examples of celebrity names that had sudden high spikes in selection ('Elvis' and 'Marlene,' for example) in conjunction with popular music and films, he didn't find ones with swift declines similar to both iterations of 'Hillary.' The research believes both patterns, however, make a case for further research to identify ways that naming trends may signal large-scale reaction to specific cultural moments.

The Ghirlanda study was published in Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Revolution (Volume 8, Issue 2, 2017).

About the Graduate Center
The Graduate Center is located in the heart of Manhattan and set within the large and multi-campus City University of New York. It fosters advanced graduate education, original research and scholarship, innovative university-wide programs, and vibrant public events that draw upon and contribute to the complex communities of New York City and beyond. Through a broad range of nationally prominent doctoral programs, the Graduate School prepares students to be scholars, teachers, experts, and leaders in the academy, the arts and in the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. Committed to CUNY's historic mission of educating the 'children of the whole people,' we work to provide access to doctoral education for diverse groups of highly talented students, including those who have been underrepresented in higher education.

About Brooklyn College
Brooklyn College is an innovative urban institution with a history of more than 80 years of academic excellence. With approximately 17,000 students enrolled in 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the humanities, social, behavioral and natural sciences, education, business and the arts, the college is renowned for its rigorous academics, diverse student body, award-winning faculty, and highly affordable tuition. Located on a beautifully landscaped 35-acre campus, Brooklyn College offers a rich student life within an urban environment.