Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on baby names
By John Sides
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. They were, in two respects.
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.
The names chosen by Democrats and Republicans differed in another respect: how they sound. Oliver and colleagues categorized each name by whether the sounds, or phonemes, it contained were more common in boy names or girl names. Boy names are more likely to contain “hard” sounds — consonants like K, B, D, T — while girl names are more likely to contain “soft” sounds — like the L’s in “Lola,” the A in “Ella,” and the Y in “Carly.” Oliver and colleagues found that, for both boy and girl babies, “softer” sounds were more prominent among educated whites living in more Democratic or liberal neighborhoods. That is, a boy’s name like “Julian” or “Liam” or a girl’s name like “Malia” would be more common in Democratic neighborhoods. A boy’s name like “Trig” or a girl’s name like “Bristol” would be more common in Republican neighborhoods. (Oliver and colleagues cannot help but note that the Obamas and the Palins conform to their findings.)