Baby Name Choice And Parental Political Affilation
John Sides takes a look at some new research that seems to show that you can tell what political party parents belong to by what name they choose for their newborn baby:
Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to agree on very much these days. They’re divided on the kinds of television shows they watch, cars they drive and beers they drink. And now new research by political scientists at the University of Chicago adds one more thing to that list: baby names.
Why study baby names at all? In order to understand all those other differences. The authors of this paper — Eric Oliver, Thomas Wood and Alexandra Bass — note that it’s often unclear whether partisan consumer habits are really due to partisanship. It could be that companies successfully market products to specific demographics that happen to have a partisan leaning. Baby names are different. As Oliver and colleagues write, baby names “are highly related to taste and fashion but largely free from market effects.”
To understand whether Democrats and Republicans choose different kinds of baby names, the researchers compiled an unusual set of data. They took all of the births in the state of California from 2004 — about 500,000 in all. For each baby born, the data contained the child’s first name, the mother’s first name, the father’s first name (where available) and the mother’s education, race and address. Using these addresses, they then matched each mother to her Census tract and thereby determined whether she lived in an area that was predominantly Democratic, Republican or somewhere in between. The question is whether mothers who lived in red, blue and purple neighborhoods were systematically different.
As it turns out there are two very significant differences:
The first difference has to do with whether the baby’s name was unusual. Oliver and colleagues ascertained whether each baby’s name was unique (such that no other child born in California in 2004 was given that name), uncommon (20 or fewer children born that year were given that name), or popular (one of the 100 most common names in California that year). Unique baby names were more common among blacks and Asian Americans than among whites and Latinos. Within any racial group, unique baby names were more common when the mothers had less formal education or lived in a lower-income neighborhood.
But among whites, partisanship and ideology mattered, too. Mothers who had at least some college education were more likely to give their child an uncommon name — and less likely to give the child a popular name — when they lived in relatively Democratic or liberal areas. If neighborhood characteristics corresponded to the mother’s own characteristics, better-educated Democrats or liberals were more likely to give their babies unusual names than better-educated Republicans or conservatives.
This leads to the second difference: the names they chose. Oliver and colleagues find that there were roughly two kinds of uncommon baby names: ones that are completely made up or just different spellings of common names (like “Jazzmyne” for Jasmine), and ones that are just esoteric. When racial minorities and the poor chose uncommon names, they were more likely to choose the former. When Democrats or liberals chose uncommon names, they were more likely to choose the latter.
Oliver and colleagues argue that liberals, consciously or unconsciously, signal cultural tastes and erudition when picking their child’s name. In conversation with me, Oliver used himself as an example. He and his wife, a novelist, named their daughter Esme — a name gleaned from a story by the writer J.D. Salinger.
On the other hand, conservatives, by being more likely than liberals to pick popular or traditional names (like John, Richard, or Katherine), signal economic capital. That is, they are choosing names traditional to the dominant economic group — essentially, wealthy whites. Oliver noted to me that some immigrants also try to help their children assimilate and succeed by choosing names in this fashion. And, given research that shows that the ethnic connotations of a job applicant’s name can affect the possibility of getting an interview, choosing names this way may make economic sense
It strikes me that what we’re seeing here is more a reflection of culture than politics. I don’t think that parents consciously go about choosing baby names because of their political leanings, although that no doubt does sometimes happen. Instead, the choice of a name for your child is as much a reflection of the culture that you’re a part of as anything else. College-education parents who happen to be Democratic tend to move about in a culture where choosing unusual baby names is considered “trendy” and acceptable, so it’s not surprising that they’d be more likely to choose such names. On the Republican side, parents have likely grown up in a more traditional culture, and thus are more likely to pick more traditional names.