Supersonic Man

August 3, 2018

ethnicity of presidential names

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 3:24 pm

For a country which is built on immigration and (usually) welcomes exceptional ethnic diversity, the United States of America has tended to be very narrow about what sort of ethnicity it looks for when electing a President, even beyond the fact that all but one of our presidents are white males.  For most of its history, America chose people whose last names originated either in the British Isles or in Holland, or failing that, had been well assimilated into a British-sounding form.  The first president to break that pattern was Dwight Eisenhower, and Barack Obama was only the second.  Even within that group, names from England were heavily favored over those from neighboring countries.

There have been 44 presidents, with 39 distinct last names.  (If you think there were 45, you counted Grover Cleveland twice.)  The high number of repeats counts as a statistical anomaly in itself.  Let’s tote up their ethnicities:

ENGLISH:  Washington, Adams (2), Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Harrison (2), Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Lincoln, Johnson (2), Grant (could be Scottish), Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush (2), Clinton.  That’s 26 names — two thirds of the total.

SCOTTISH:  Monroe, Polk, Buchanan (Scots-Irish), McKinley (Scots-Irish).

IRISH:  Hayes (anglicized), Kennedy, Reagan.

DUTCH:  Van Buren, Roosevelt (2).

GERMAN:  Hoover (anglicized), Eisenhower, Trump (anglicized).

KENYAN:  Obama.

Some other statistical biases we notice by looking at the list of presidents: most are taller than average, and very few regularly wore eyeglasses (just Bush the elder, Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt when he wasn’t avoiding them purely for vanity).  And as has been noted elsewhere, nowadays it seems like about half of presidents are southpaws.  In fact, we recently had three in a row: Reagan, Bush the elder, and Clinton were all left-handed.  So were Hoover, Truman, Ford, and Obama; that brings the total since 1929 up to 7 out of 15.  But before then, only a single leftie is known: James Garfield.

But the most important statistical anomaly may be the frequency and clustering of cases where the electoral college managed to reverse the outcome of the popular vote.  It has now happened four times (not counting the four-way election of 1824, which was decided by the House of Representatives): 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  In all four cases a Democrat convinced more voters but a Republican won the electoral vote.

In the first case the result was the end of Reconstruction and the start of the Jim Crow era in the south (a price demanded by southern Democrats in exchange for conceding).  In the third case it was the invasion of Iraq, and arguably the September 11th attack preceding it.  In the fourth case it’s been a nationwide revival of nativism and fascism, with additional horrors no doubt to come.  The second case, though, turned out well: Benjamin Harrison admitted new western states, created national forests, modernized the Navy, passed the Sherman antitrust act, fought for education and voting rights for minorities, and raised a budget surplus.  Oddly, it was the latter point which led his party to defeat in the following elections: raising and spending a lot of money was unpopular, even though the means by which the new revenue was raised, namely protectionist tariffs which were denounced by his opponent, was exactly what had convinced people to vote for Harrison in the first place.

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