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The Names that Do—and Don’t—Hold Power in Washington

February 4, 2021 laurawattenberg 5 Comments

The Names that Do—and Don’t—Hold Power in Washington

February 4, 2021 LauraWattenberg 5 Comments
"I'm sorry, Dave" (image from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey)

The Brady Bunch? In. Dave and Jen? Out. Oh, and women? Yeah, they’re still out too. Those are a few of the conclusions from a review of the names that rule in American government.

I tallied the given names of over 900 current high-ranking US public servants, including congresspeople, cabinet members, state governors and federal judges. (*See methodology notes below.) My goal was to find out which names were most common, which were overrepresented and which were underrepresented at the highest levels of political power.

The first result is predictable, yet a little overwhelming in its strength: male names utterly dominate. The top 10 names in American politics are all male. Even everyone on the power list named Kelly, Jody, Lindsey, Tracy or Leslie is male. In all, powerful men vastly outnumber women, and the name stats skew accordingly.

Beyond gender, names in power naturally mirror names in the general population. For instance, the top three most common names in politics are the super-popular classics Michael, John and James. But some names punch above their weight. I compared names’ frequency rankings in my political list with their rankings among all Americans born 1940-1990 (representing the politician-aged public) to identify the most disproportionately powerful names in U.S. politics.

#1. Peter#1. Marcia
#2. Andrew#2. Katherine
#3. John#3. Deborah
#4. Gregory#4. Michelle

Marcia takes the #1 overall power rating. The name ranks just #173 in popularity among American women, but is a top-5 name among women in politics—tied with Mary, the #1 name among adult women.

Looking at the top of the power list, readers of a certain age might find themselves humming the theme to The Brady Bunch. Marcia, Peter and Greg were three of the kids on that classic 1970s sitcom. It’s not pure coincidence. The creators of the TV series chose trendy hit names of the 1950s and ’60, when the characters would have been born. That Brady name generation is now at the peak of power.

That’s the top of the heap. The names at the bottom, the names most underrepresented in politics, are even more telling. Take a look at some extremely popular female names that rank far lower than expected in the power ratings:


What the five names most obviously have in common is their length in syllables. American female names have more syllables on average than male names, yet all the names at the top of the female power list are two syllables. (Yes, you can argue about Katherine and Deborah, but I don’t think you’ll win.) No high-ranked power name has the strongly feminine sound and purely female origin of a name like Melissa.

This trend fits with past research suggesting that names with strong feminine markers are underrepresented in traditionally male-dominated fields. It’s also notable that the boyish names Eddie, Johnnie, Jacky and Mikie outnumber the five popular long names above among the political women. Jessica and Jennifer’s day may still lie ahead, but for now, long and distinctly feminine names remain on the outside of Washington power circles.

One male name, a nickname, also stands out for its absence in the corridors of power: Dave. Nicknames are usually the darlings of modern politics; just ask Joe Biden, Mike Pence, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. Their shortened forms suggest a friendly, trusted intimacy, and voters instinctively warm to them. Almost all the elected officials in my tally with names like Thomas, Peter, Joseph and William choose to go by nicknames instead. Among elected Michaels, Stevens and Roberts the Mike, Steve and Bob rate is about two-thirds. And among Davids, the Dave rate is…zero. Not one of the many Davids I tallied goes by Dave.

It seems that there’s something different about Dave. It’s perceived as even more casual than other nicknames, and less complete. Popularity statistics bear this out. Compared to the other classic nicknames, Dave has seldom been bestowed as a given name. Even in 1960, when David was America’s #1 name, the name Dave didn’t crack the top 100—while Mike, Steve, Jeff, Tony, Joe, Tim, Chris, Johnny, Billy, Jimmy, Bobby, Jim, Willie, Greg, Tom, Ronnie, Bill, Jon and Rick all did.

Dave appears to stand alone as the ubiquitous, friendly nickname America isn’t willing to bank on. Sorry, buddy.

. . . . . . . . . .

*Methodological notes: The political list includes current state governors, members of congress, cabinet-level federal officials, federal appellate court judges, the president, vice-president, and Supreme Court justices. For my tally, I used the names that the political leaders identify themselves by (e.g. Mitt Romney rather than Willard M. Romney) but I combined nicknames with their formal sources, and combined spelling variants. So, for instance, the political total for Steven includes Stephens and Steves. Power ratings are based on a ratio of rank in the general adult population vs. rank in the political list.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • Kayeff
    Kayeff February 5, 2021 at 12:16 am

    That’s so interesting about Dave! I’ve always felt that the nickname Jon, which was ubiquitous in my school growing up, was somewhat more incomplete than a nickname like Mike. I remember thinking about it when I was in grade 4 or 5.

    When I read the part about the number of syllables in female politicians, two members of Congress came to mind: Marjorie (who is all over the news today and doesn’t exactly conjure images of power or competence,) and Alexandria, who is generally called by her non-feminine initials.

  • Onomatopoeta February 6, 2021 at 8:04 pm

    While the first name (rare in USA) of new US Vice President Kamela Harris is not on your Top Five Political Women’s Names list, it is an exact homonym of “Camilla,” Duchess of Cornwall, presumptive next queen (or princess consort) of England. And Kamela’s surname “Harris” is well known to Americans as the surname of the late great British actor Richard Harris, who in the 1967 film Camelot played King Arthur. And there is the inveterate venerable noble textile “Harris tweed.” And “Harris” rhymes with “Paris,” successively prince of Troy, capitol of France, and first name of a today Hilton Hotel heiress.

    And while in the JFK presidency one of his trusted advisors (and later curator of his Camelot legacy) was a Dave Powers (whose last name literally denotes to nonetymologists, has powers), yet he was more a “First Friend.” Then perhaps the 30 year “reign” of US tv late “nite” uber casual, current affairs jester Dave Letterman (who retired to a Western ranch and grew a long beard) has cost the nickname “Dave” its former ethos.

    Historically earlier, while in 1807 and ’08 English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy discovered and named several key elements such as potassium and sodium, a later nonsense “clerihew” verse gently mocked this with a singsong of his surname, “Sir Humphrey Davy abominated gravy. / He lived in the odium / Of having discovered sodium.”

    And early 19th century Tennessee (serially lose/win/lose) state legislator David Crockett, after he did not win his run to be a US House Representative (despite his folk popularity as “king of the wild frontier”), so he went to Texas to fight at the Alamo, where he died 1836.

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg February 6, 2021 at 8:28 pm

      @Onomatopoeta That’s interesting, I don’t hear Camilla and Kamala as exact homonyms at all! kə-MIL-ə vs. KAH-mə-lə. Perhaps we’re pronouncing Camilla differently?

      As for Letterman, I think he’s a great illustration of the phenomenon of Dave being treated differently from other nicknames. He was always called Dave in conversation, but never introduced as “Dave Letterman,” always David. It’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” or “Starring Jimmy Fallon”, not John or James, but “Late Night with DAVID Letterman.”

  • NicW February 7, 2021 at 6:15 am

    Yes what is it about Dave it just doesn’t stack the same way! If you add a sprinkle of pop culture onto Dave there’s the movie by that name in the early 1990’s. And it’s about a president, right? Seems risky. And there’s another show called Dave as of last year that’s a little uncouth. Dave was also in a radio commercial about saying that name a bunch of times to annoyance… and then advising people on just blaming Dave for the problem at hand. Maybe it’s not punchy enough. /A/ sound it seems as chill as all the Daves I know in real life. Maybe there weren’t enough surfing, driving, code cracking, badge wearing, swashbuckling Daves in the past chicken and egg style with a screenwriting believability.

  • Jamie March 5, 2021 at 7:52 pm

    In Britain, Dave is the name of a TV channel.
    Not strictly relevant, but another Daveological oddity.

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