Asked & Answered 6.0
Blame it on a simple twist of Hickenlooper fate.
I confess: it is only because former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper decided to run for president that I decided to write this post. His candidacy intrigues me — if Hickenlooper were to win, he would would join Dwight Eisenhower as our only four-syllable presidents and he would be the first president with a 12-letter surname.
Hickenlooper himself talks about his “funny name” but how unusual is it, relative to other U.S. Presidents? How does it affect his chances? What is a presidential name, anyway? Since no one is addressing these important questions, I am happy to do so — not only for Hickenlooper’s sake but for all of the 2020 presidential candidates.
Here is how we will proceed. First, we will assign weights to the names of our presidents based on their positive or negative influence. We will then use those weights to tabulate the desirability of three properties of presidential names — length, consonant-vowel ratio and last letter. Finally, we will calculate a Sounds Like A President (SLAP) score for each candidate’s name based on its properties and their historical desirability.
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Let’s preface the discussion by comparing the length of the surnames of U.S. presidents to those of the population at large. The chart below shows the prevalence of last names of various lengths for both groups. Note how the presidents with 8 to 10 letters in their last names are over-represented with respect to the population:
We should not conclude from this chart that long names confer an electoral advantage. Perhaps the performance of those presidents was so poor that a longer name now carries a negative connotation. Or it could be that no one even remembers certain presidents and therefore the characteristics of their names are irrelevant. This is why we must begin the analysis by calculating Presidential Name Weights (PNW):
PNW (for President x) = Reputation Score x Memorability Factor
Using Presidential Name Weights (ranging from -1.0 to 1.0) is more realistic than giving equal weight to each name without regard to how or whether a president is remembered.
The Reputation Score of each president is derived from the 2019 Survey of U.S. Presidents conducted by Siena College Research Institute. In this survey, 157 presidential scholars and historians rated the presidents on their abilities and accomplishments, and the results were ranked from 1 (best) to 44 (worst). I re-scaled the rankings so that Reputation Score ranges from 1.0 (best) to -1.0 (worst) and 0.0 represents an average (mediocre) president.
The Memorability Factor for each president comes from a study by Roediger and Desoto, in which participants were asked to name as many presidents as they could remember. This factor ranges from 0.0 to 1.0, reflecting the fraction of participants who were able to name a given president.
We can now calculate the Presidential Name Weight for each president as the product of his reputation and his memorability. The results (below) are sorted from most positive to most negative:
This chart tells us that the names Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy carry the most positive weights, whereas Nixon, Hoover, Johnson, Bush and Trump suffer the most negative weights. Candidates whose names remind us of Washington or Lincoln would score highly relative to candidates with names like Bush and Trump.
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Our next step is to construct a Desirability Table for each property of a presidential name. For instance, how desirable is having 9 letters in one’s last name? How desirable is having a name that ends in n? And so on.
This example shows how a Desirability Table is built. Say we want to know the desirability of having a surname with x letters. 1) We list all the presidents with x-letter surnames and add up their Presidential Name Weights. 2) We divide that sum by the total PNW for all presidents to yield the desirability factor D for an x-letter surname. Repeat these steps for every possible value of x to complete the Letter Count Desirability Table. And so on.
Here then are the Desirability Tables for the presidential name properties in our analysis. Each D-factor is a value between -1.0 and 1.0, and the highest D-factor for each property is shown in green.
The tables reveal that the highest-scoring presidential name would be 9 letters long, have a consonant-to-vowel ratio between 2.1 and 2.6, and end in the letter n. Interestingly, none of our presidents’ names have all three of these features.
The last item we need to address before calculating Sounds Like A President (SLAP) scores for the candidates is the weight we should assign to each property. Here, we will elect to base a property’s weight on the amount of variation in its D-factors. Sparing the reader my lengthy justification, the weights we will assign to letter count, consonant-vowel ratio and last letter are w(LC) = 0.265, w(CV) = 0.275 and w(LL) = 0.460 respectively.
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We are finally ready to calculate the SLAP score for each candidate, using this formula:
SLAP (for candidate x) = w(LC) x D(LC) + w(CV) x D(CV) + w(LL) x D(LL)
For illustration, let’s consider John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper’s last name has 12 letters, a consonant-vowel ratio of 1.4 and ends in r, so his SLAP score is
SLAP (Hickenlooper) = (0.265 x 0) + (0.275 x 0.463) + (0.460 x -0.038) = 0.110
which means he does not have a very presidential name, indeed.
The highest possible SLAP score is 0.657, corresponding to a name which has 9 letters and 5 consonants and ends in n. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, destiny awaits you.
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The table below lists the SLAP scores for the 20 mainstream presidential candidates (plus Donald Trump). And the name of our next president is…
Elizabeth Warren! Warren vaults to the top of the list on the strength of her last letter n and consonant-vowel ratio of 2.0. Warren edges out Joe Biden, whose five-letter name weighs him down, thanks to the likes of Trump, Nixon, Tyler, Hayes and Grant.
Tim Ryan of Ohio has a decent SLAP score and may be a good running mate for Warren. Bernie Sanders has another respectable showing but comes up short in the last letter race. Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg (his full name) is just happy his last name is not Burns.
If only Hillary Clinton were running… her Sounds Like A President score would be 0.637.
Last and least is where we find Donald Trump. Memorably poor performance. Negative scores in all areas. Still doesn’t sound like a president.
 Data for the U.S. population is from the 2010 U.S. Census, comprising the most-common 150,000 names representing 90% of the population.
 As one might expect, George Washington topped the rankings and Andrew Johnson came in dead last. Donald Trump was merely the third-worst.
 The Roediger and Desoto study was published in 2014, prior to the 2016 election. As such, the president named most often was Barack Obama (100%). I assigned Donald Trump a 100% memorability factor as well but did not adjust the figures for the other presidents.
 Readers may ask, why these properties and not others, such as the number of syllables? Syllable count would be fairly redundant, as it is correlated with letter count and consonant-to-vowel ratio. I tried to select properties that appeared to be more-or-less independent but I did not actually test their cross-correlation.
 Specifically, the property weights w are based on the standard deviation in D(property). My rationale is that a factor with little variation does not differentiate the candidates as much as one with large variation. The statisticians among my readers are sure to howl, which is OK, because I don’t know any statisticians.