The MVP of Meeting MVPs

My last post, on the employment connections between Presidents, put me in mind of some network diagrams I once put together on the other major topic in American history: the NBA. Specifically, I was interested in MVPs who have played together on the same team in the same season. I didn’t care what stage of the career either guy was in; as long as both of them were ever on a team together and won the MVP sometime—even far in the past or future from the season they shared—they were still connected. Here’s the result:

NBA_MVP.png

The colors of the edges are based on the shared team (I approximated team colors, which I guess I’ll list in the footnote to this sentence), and their weight (line thickness) is based on how many years the two connected guys played together.1  The nodes are sized based on betweenness centrality. As you can see, by this one metric no one in NBA history has ever been as important as Bob McAdoo. A little more on him in a second.

The headline, I suppose, is that MVPs are fairly highly interconnected, even by this narrow criterion. In the NBA, if you get past first-order connections, you pretty quickly get to a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon situation, as you can see for yourself using this tool from Slate.  For instance, you can get from Kyrie Irving to George Mikan in six teammates—impressive when you consider that Mikan’s career predates the NBA.2  But direct connections like you see here are much tougher; Kyrie will never play with most of the people in the league today, much less retirees. MVPs tend to have long careers—they’re generally highly employable—so that ups their odds of playing together, but they also often stick with a team (the Lakers weren’t about to trade Kobe Bryant), and their contracts are usually expensive, so I was a bit surprised to see how many had played together at least once. All told, of the 31 guys who have been MVP, only 9 never shared a roster with someone.

That said, some of these connections are ridiculous. Here are a few of the more absurd ones, in order of ascending tenuousness:

  • Steve Nash is only connected to Kobe because of the time he and Dwight Howard tried to form a super-team in LA. Nash was already 38 and in his 17th season, and he spent the most of the time injured. Dwight left the next year. The team was not super.3 
  • Karl Malone is only connected to anyone because of the time he and Gary Payton tried to form a super-team in LA. He was 40, and in his 19th season, and missed half the games because of injuries. And then the Pistons won the Finals anyway.
  •  Shaquille O’Neal concluded his career—largely spent on a super-team in LA—by roaming from team to team like a gigantic, increasingly ineffective samurai. He joined Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns, where, according to distraught Wikipedia phrasing, he “all but ended their fast-paced offense which had brought them on the cusp of a Finals appearance”. Then he moved on to LeBron James’s Cavs, and helped them get slightly less far in the playoffs than they had the year before. Finally, he journeyed to the Celtics, where Kevin Garnett’s recently-built super-team was coming off a Finals appearance; they have not been back since.
  • Moses Malone similarly refused to retire. His connection to David Robinson stems from his 21st season, when he was 39. This was 1995, and he was the last active player from the ABA, which folded in 1976. He managed to play just 17 games, averaging about 9 minutes a game. But in his last game he hit an 80-foot buzzer-beating three, so it was probably worth it for everyone involved.
  • Bob Cousy did retire, but then he unretired, which was probably worth it for no one. In 1970 he was coach of the Cincinnati Royals, and decided to play himself to boost ticket sales. This happened even though: A) He had last played a game in 1963—long enough ago that his absence effectively coincides with the entire existence of the Beatles; B) He was 41, C) He was a point guard, and this team featured Oscar Robertson. In the 7 games he played, Cousy amassed 34 minutes and 5 points—not on average, but in total. And yet, this is still a more meaningful connection than:
  • That between Moses and Bob McAdoo on the 1977 Buffalo Braves. They were together for two games, during which Moses played 6 total minutes. His stat line: 0/1/0/0/0 with 1 foul. But there’s one thing you can’t deny: They were technically on the same team in the same season.

That’s the perfect transition back to McAdoo. What’s his deal? If you’re like me you know him mainly as a trivia answer, a guy who led the league in scoring and won an MVP in the mid-70’s for… some team (turns out it was the Braves). He was a great player, but I get the sense that he’s generally considered one of the weaker MVPs. In any case, he definitely moved around a lot after that successful early period in Buffalo. From there he went to New York for a while, then stopped by Boston for 20 games in 1979, just long enough to get a connection with Dave Cowens. After stints in Detroit and New Jersey, he actually stuck around with the Lakers for four years, so his connections to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are pretty substantial. And then he retired like he worked: By first playing 29 games in Philadelphia with Charles Barkley and Dr. J. The network above doesn’t quite show it, but Moses was there too—coming full circle after their 6-minute connection on the Braves. Those two were real journeymen, but the crazy thing with McAdoo is that he was only 34 when he retired; he played just 14 seasons, but still got to 7 different teams.

One of the initial motivations behind this project was to show that the situation we’ve got on the Warriors next year—Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, two very recent MVPs, still in their prime—isn’t that unusual. But in spite of its fairly high connectivity, I think you really see just the opposite here. Only a few of these guys played together at our near their peak: Definitely Kareem/Magic and Shaq/Kobe, probably Cousy/Russell, and it’s reasonably close for Oscar/Kareem, Dr. J/Moses, and Duncan/Robinson. Everyone else is off somehow; in some cases both parties are past their prime. So that line between Durant and Curry should be pretty unique.

Still, I like all these tenuous connections. It’s the reason the two clusters are so connective, the top one connecting the 2000’s from Karl Malone to LeBron, and the bottom one stretching (thanks to Cousy’s marketing tactics and McAdoos’ travels) all the way from the 1950’s to Tim Duncan, hitting every major period in between.

Now that Duncan has retired, though, that cluster may be done. The last hope is probably Kawhi Leonard, who stands a decent chance of winning MVP sometime in the next few years. But then he or someone else will also need to migrate. Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury. Bill Walton is the best analogy there—a dominant force in 1977, he could’t stay healthy enough to keep going, missing multiple entire seasons. That’s probably the only reason he wound up on the Celtics, where, unlike the examples above, he was a major contributor to a title team while creating his connection to another MVP in Larry Bird. And finally, these connections often back-form; look at Moses and Robinson, or Cousy and Oscar. There’s still time for LeBron to have a late-career Shaqesque spirit journey.

One last thought: These sorts of networks get more connected very quickly if you add either a few extra nodes (more players = better odds that any one player has a teammate out there somewhere) or another principle of connection. I thought about using family members. Dell Curry, for instance, played with both Karl Malone (Jazz, ’86) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Raptors, ’02), connecting the two big clusters, and he’s the father of Steph Curry, connecting everyone to him and Durant. And the Warriors have also forged a connection to the most important man in the MVP network: In July, they re-signed back-up forward James Michael McAdoo, second cousin to Bob.

 


Notes

1. Celtic green = Celtics; Dark green = Bucks; Yellow = Lakers; Dark blue = 76ers; Red = Rockets; Gray = Spurs; Light blue = Mavericks; Pinkish purple = Suns. A few are easier to describe based on the connection: Cousy<->Robertson = Cincinnati Royals; Shaq<->James = Cavaliers; Moses<->McAdoo = Buffalo Braves. 

2. Kyrie played with Anthony Parker, who played with Rick Mahorn, who played with Wes Unseld, who played with Bob Ferry, who played with Slater Martin, who played with George Mikan. One cool thing about the Slate tool is that it incorporates other sports at the same time; for instance, LeBron James is evidently 4 degrees of separation from Mike Trout (via Damon Jones, Mark Hendrickson (who played in the NBA and MLB), and Scott Kazmir). One caveat, though, is that their data only goes to 2013.

3. This experiment and Shaq’s late-career wandering (see below) are the only reasons Dirk Nowitzki is connected to a larger network, instead of just to Nash. There’s a certain dignity to isolation in this network, I guess.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the oldest battles in American political rhetoric is the one that pits bold outsiders against experienced statesmen. This election has taken that to such a ludicrous extreme that it put me in mind of a project I did back when I was first learning how to build network diagrams.1  The idea was to see Presidential employment relationships: Which Presidents held major jobs under other Presidents? Who employed the most other Presidents? The results tell us a little about the outsider/insider battle at the highest level of insiderness.

When you start to dig into this stuff, a lot of ambiguous situations arise. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was Commanding General of the United States Army under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but Johnson, characteristic of his usual interest in skilled governance, national unity, and racial progress, hated him and constantly tried to get him fired.2 Should that count? What about William McKinley, who was a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War? Technically that means he worked for Lincoln and Grant—should that count? In the end I settled on an imperfect but easy compromise: I took any job that got its own category in the sidebar of the President’s Wikipedia page. Grant’s has his Commanding General post; McKinley’s major post doesn’t make the cut.

Here are the results:

PresidentialEmploymentSimpler

The nodes here are colored by political party and sized by betweenness centrality.3 I’ve arranged everything here to show the major clusters. What immediately stands out is that the early guys are incredibly interconnected. John Quincy Adams worked for four different Presidents (ambassador for Washington, Adams with no Q, and Madison, and Secretary of State for Monroe) and hired another, Harrison, who had also worked for his dad. Recently a lot of people, including Barack Obama, have said that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for President, and while I think the basic gist of this is true (she’s as qualified as anyone in the last hundred years), you just can’t beat those early guys. They just insisted on hiring each other to do everything (and that’s before you factor in things like writing the Constitution).

Beyond that, you see a couple of other groups: The Lincoln Republicans, a group I call the Immigration Era Republicans,4  and then the American Empire guys—the WWI and WWII Presidents, followed by the Republican group that dominated the rest of the 20th century. It’s obvious that some things are off here; W. is clearly in the same political club as Nixon (who contributed a lot of his staffers) and George H.W. Bush (who contributed a lot of his DNA, education, baseball teams, etc.). And there are other, slightly more tenuous connections as well: The Harrisons are related, albeit separated by a generation; JFK’s dad worked for FDR; Taylor prosecuted the Mexican-American War for Polk.

Here’s another issue with this data: You may have noticed that the edges in that network are multicolored. That’s to show the nature of the job held, as detailed in this key:

EdgeKey

Most of these are probably fine (and note that “governor” only refers to appointed governorships, like when McKinley made Taft Governor-General of the Philippines), but ambassadorships are doing a ton of work here.5  Buchanan, for instance, was the ambassador to Russia under Jackson at the early stage of his bafflingly long (considering how it ended) career in national politics, which is the only reason the President in the late 1850’s is connected to George Washington. Arguably these aren’t substantial enough roles to be included in this kind of graph; that’s what happens when you let Wikipedia make the decisions for you. Still, in broad strokes, I think this really shows you something about the internecine operations of power at our highest level, and its capacity to reset every so often.

One last image: Here’s everything laid out chronologically. This time the edges are directed, so you can see, based on the arrows, who hired whom.

PresidentialEmploymentOrdered

Here the unending nature of that first group really becomes clear. If you worked for George Washington, you stood a surprisingly good chance of being in the same org chart as the guy who would one day lose seven states to secession at the start of the Civil War. You also see that the groups overlap chronologically, with Wilson and FDR crossing the 1920’s Republicans, and the Taylor/Fillmore pair interrupting the Founders’ lovefest. You also get the weird anomaly of Hoover hiring a guy who had already been the President; when he needed a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who better to choose than the man appointed governor of a territory by the man whose Vice President later appointed that same man governor of a territory? (Taft was also a judge and solicitor general under Ben Harrison—you just couldn’t keep Presidents from hiring him, even decades after he was done being President.)

The possibilities for describing these employer-employee chains are pretty fun. For instance, Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s Vice President’s general’s Vice President’s Vice President’s CIA Director’s running mate was Ronald Reagan (that’s Wilson-FDR-Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford-Bush-Reagan). Or, much weirder, Polk’s Secretary of State’s former boss’s former boss’s former boss’s Secretary of State’s UK ambassador’s former boss’s Vice President’s appointed governor’s Vice President was John Tyler, aka the guy Polk replaced. (That one goes Polk-Buchanan-Jackson-Monroe-Jefferson-Madison-JQA-Washington-Adams-Harrison-Tyler.)

In the recent past, we’ve had a lot more isolates than before, although, as noted, there’s a strong argument for connecting W. to the other American Empire guys. But if Clinton wins, we’ll have connections to Obama (who hired her as Secretary of State) and arguably Bill Clinton (it’s pretty odd to think of that as an employment relationship, but First Lady makes the Wikipedia sidebar—nothing I can do!). And if you’re willing to go along with all that, the only guy who would be left out of the loops in the past 120 years is Jimmy Carter, a mediocre President but arguably in the top three in terms of being a decent human being. It’s a little sad to think of him out there by himself; I think Clinton should appoint him Ambassador to Cuba for a couple days.6  It’s what the Founders would have wanted.

 

 


Notes

1. I did all of this with Gephi.

2. One strategy was to try and promote William T. Sherman ahead of Grant to dilute his power. For some reason Sherman preferred to side with Grant, which led to the odd situation of Sherman calling in political favors to battle his own promotion on the Senate floor. See Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, 452. 

3. Betweenness centrality basically measures how important a node is for connecting other groups of nodes to each other; so Jackson is big because he connects all those dark blues to the Founders. The parties here include Democrat (dark blue), Republican (red), Democratic-Republican (light blue), Federalist (yellow), Whig (green), and none (white).

4. Two reasons: 1. There’s not another good name for the period from the 1880’s-1930’s; it’s post-Reconstruction, much longer than the Gilded Age or Progressive Era, and doesn’t align well with any wars. But, 2. Tons of people immigrated to the U.S. over this period. The numbers really explode starting in the 1880’s (they double the 1870’s in the source in that link) and stay strong until the mid-1930’s.

5. In the old days they seemed to call ambassadors “ministers” (e.g., Buchanan was United States Minister to Russia). I’m assuming these jobs are close enough to the same thing for my purposes, though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that. 

6. First Provisional Governor of Cuba for the U.S.: William Howard Taft. Of course. And by the way, to answer the two questions I asked in the first paragraph and then forgot about: 25 Presidents worked for some other President; JQA and Taft each worked for 4 different Presidents, tying for first on that metric. Three Presidents hired other Presidents 4 times: Jackson hired Buchanan, and then Van Buren for three different things. Madison hired JQA and Monroe for two things apiece. And Washington hired Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and JQA, one time apiece.

The Parable of the NBA Talents

One of the many complaints attached to Kevin Durant’s recent decision to join the Warriors is that it will wreck any semblance of parity in the NBA. There were two players who posed a threat to that team and one of them just joined it, seemingly killing all suspense about who will win the title next year (unless thinking about injuries counts as a form of suspense). It makes sense that a lot of people are mad/disgusted about this, but I think these arguments miss a key feature of NBA history: the league has almost never had parity, and it’s better when it doesn’t.

You don’t have to get too detailed to see just how skewed the NBA is (although if you want to, this Forbes article explains the financial influences pretty well). In my lifetime (30-ish years), just nine teams have won the NBA title. In the NFL, to get to nine champions you have to go all the way back to… 2007. That’s just ten seasons—nearly every time it was possible, someone new won. The NFL is often held up as the parity model to follow, and there’s a certain logic to that, since they’re the league that makes the most money even though they’re an obvious ethical catastrophe. But the NFL model just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the NBA.

If you delve a little further into the history, you see this kind of thing going all the way back. Even before it was called the NBA, the league had started a dynasty, with the Minneapolis Lakers. They won five of the first eight titles, and from there the timeline of non-parity looks like this:

NBA Non-Parity: A Timeline

1947-1954: Lakers dynasty (5 of 8 titles)

1955-56: Open season!

1957-1969: Celtics dynasty (11 of 13 titles)

1970-1979: Open season again!

1980-1989: Celtics and/or Lakers in every single Finals

1990-1998: Bulls win 6 of 8 (Rockets get the other two)

1999-2010: Lakers or Spurs in 11 of 12 Finals

2011-Present: LeBron James

You might have noticed that I switched from titles to Finals appearances partway through—when you consider these, the league looks really skewed. There have been 70 NBA Finals; the Lakers have been in 31 of those. The Celtics have appeared in another 21. So that means two teams have appeared in better than 70% of all possible Finals (12 of those times, they were playing each other).correction

Why is this like this? I have no idea. One theory is that individual players matter more in the NBA, so a transcendent talent on a particular team means more. It’s definitely true that the league still looks unequal when you phrase it in terms of individuals: Every Finals since 1999, except one, has featured LeBron, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. In fact, you can get back to 1957 with just 14 players1:

A History of the NBA Finals in 14 Players

14 NBA Finals Players Corrected - Edited

I wanted to include that because I think it’s cool, but I’m not sure the Great Man theory actually explains that much. I mean, it’s true that Russell, Magic, Kobe, and LeBron personally account for half of all NBA Finals. But LeBron had Wade, Kobe had Gasol/Shaq, Magic had Kareem, and Russell had a crappy rigged 8-team league. (I don’t like the Celtics. What was I talking about? Oh right, that obnoxious dynasties are good.) Point being, the greats required other greats to win, and it seems like a league with parity could simply have distributed some of those greats elsewhere—put Kobe on the Jazz, say, or Magic Johnson on the Pacers.2 As far as I can tell, the lack of parity just doesn’t have a great explanation (though the salary structure has clearly been the key driver in the last few years).

As you may have noticed, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can see in the little timeline above that the 1970’s were an open season. In that period eight different teams won, six of them for the first and last time (the Warriors were the seventh in that club until 2015). Compare that to the four teams of the 1980’s and it looks like a Golden Age—except that, as every curmudgeonly sportswriter agrees, the 1980’s were the real Golden Age, and the 1970’s were terrible. The league kept diluting the talent with nonsense teams (the Phoenix(?) Suns(!)), half the players were on cocaine, and there was a cooler, but not very good, competing league until halfway through the decade. It was the nadir of the NBA. The 80’s are supposed to be the Renaissance from that, the moment when the league reached its modern form, began to compete with the other major sports, and found stars who could sell things all over the world. And basically that meant two guys played each other over and over until they physically couldn’t, at which point Michael Jordan handled everything himself for the next decade.

Long story short, the NBA has never been about a fair shake for 30 teams. It has always been about a tiny oligarchy of geniuses in markets rich enough to pay two of them to trounce everyone else. If you love the NBA, apparently this is what you want to see. The people who say Kevin Durant has damaged his legacy with this move have to confront a pretty overwhelming history: Callous disregard for parity is the legacy of the NBA.


Notes

1. It’s possible there’s a more efficient way to do this, but this is the best I’ve found. To make the graphic more interesting I picked players who appeared in a lot of Finals, but in three cases (Dr. J, Larry Bird (surprisingly), and Clyde Drexler) you can swap them with any random player from 1977, 1981, and 1990, respectively, since those are the only Finals in which they appear without someone else on the list. One other combination I found that also involves 14 players would swap Wade for LeBron. This gets you the Heatles titles plus 2006. Then you can eliminate Shaq (Kobe covers the rest of his) and make up LeBron’s difference with Steph Curry (or Iguodala, Kyrie, Draymond, Dellavedova, etc.). I went with LeBron since I mention him a lot elsewhere in the article.

2. Technically I had to imagine this in order to write it, but I still feel like I can’t quite imagine it.

This post has been corrected: Originally I had the Celtics going to 20 Finals, and the two teams meeting 11 times. I’m not sure what happened—I guess I overlooked one.
 

 

VPs Are Important

Matthew Yglesias at Vox makes an excellent point in a recent post: The choice of Vice President is one of the most important that a President can make.1  I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize his argument in slightly more qualitative terms.

To date, 14 of our Presidents arrived at the job through the Vice Presidency.2 That’s almost exactly one third of the people who have been President. It’s also about 30% of the people who have been Vice President (we’ve had 47 so far). So that pretty much confirms Yglesias’s point by itself: I doubt there’s any better predictor of future Presidency than having been VP, and evidently there’s no talent pool voters like to raid more than that one.3

Also persuasive is the fact that 9 of our Presidents (about one in five) got the job automatically simply by virtue of being the VP. Eight Presidents died in office, and one resigned. This is a terrible rate of completion; 20% of the people who have held that office haven’t made it to the end of their elected terms. It’s true that no President has left office early in about 40 years, and I think you could argue that the most chaotic days are behind us (e.g., in the forty years stretching from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, three Presidents were murdered). Still, the idea that the VP is a heartbeat away from the Presidency is actually pretty well borne out in our history. And those days are not entirely behind us: Four of our Presidents have died of natural causes. Medicine is better today, but so far people still die sometimes.

VicePresidents

Finally, Yglesias notes that even when VPs don’t ascend to the Presidency, they often become the nominees for major parties—further proving the importance of the job. Perusing the list of VPs, I only see four people who ran but failed to win: John Breckinridge served under Buchanan and lost to Lincoln, Hubert Humphrey served under LBJ and lost to Nixon, Walter Mondale served under Carter and lost to Reagan, and Al Gore served under Clinton and lost to W.4  Across all of American history, this appears to be a slightly weaker part of Yglesias’s argument, but three of the four examples are from the past fifty years, so it might be that it’s more relevant today than the raw counts suggest.

So there you have it: If history is any guide, there is a very strong chance that the VP on the winning ticket will become President later on. You could make the argument that, historically, it’s apparently about a third as important a job as the Presidency, since it eventually is the Presidency one third of the time. And that’s pretty important; unless I’m incredibly mistaken about the readership of this blog, it beats your job by a wide margin. So this gives us a rare opportunity to say, realistically, that we hope Clinton doesn’t screw up as badly as Abraham Lincoln.5

 


1. This is especially obvious, as Yglesias notes, in the case of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson; if anything, Yglesias understates the extent to which Johnson was a complete disaster—appointing him was the single worst decision Lincoln made as President, and one of the worst things that ever happened to Civil Rights in the United States, which is saying something.

2. The 14 are Adams I, Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson I, Arthur, Teddy, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, Johnson II, Ford, and Bush I. This is all from Wikipedia and other easily accessible sources (I think you could probably glean it from the Yglesias post with a little work). All I’m trying to do here is compile and summarize it.

3. As far as better predictors for becoming President, you’re pretty much limited to things that only apply to one person (e.g., “being George Washington”, or “marrying Mary Todd”). It’s actually pretty hard to think of another good smartass answer that works—I thought of “sharing at least 50% of John Adams’s DNA”, but he had six kids (and two parents), so the rate of 2/9 is actually slightly worse than for VPs. (George H.W. Bush has had 6 kids, too). Another important milestone for Hillary Clinton if she were elected would be adding “being Chelsea Clinton’s parent” to this list. 

4. It seems weird that they’re all Democrats. Supposedly conservatives like hierarchy more, which might mean they’d turn out to vote for the guy who seems like the next guy in line, but it could also be a coincidence—it is just four guys. I didn’t include George Clinton in this list; he got a few electoral votes in 1808, but it was while he was running for (and already serving as) VP. You also might double count Nixon as a losing candidate for his party and a future President, since he was both, in that order. 

5. Trump, of course, will surely pick Donald Sterling

Trump’s Favorite Joke

Recently I came across a trail of bizarre, hilarious campaign rhetoric from Donald Trump that leads right to two of the core questions about his whole political presence. These questions are as fascinating as they are profoundly disturbing:

  1. Does he actually mean the things that he says?
  2. Does he know the answer to question one?

I’m afraid that I have not reached a conclusive answer to either question; as a society, we may never get there. But this is a pretty illuminating glimpse beneath the hood.

It all started with this Tweet, which I saw on Friday (June 17):

Click through and you’ll see a transcript of a speech Trump gave in Texas. Like most Trump transcripts, it gives you plenty to think about, but the highlight is this:

But we’re gonna start winning again. We’re gonna win so much, you people are gonna get sick of it. You’re gonna come up and they’re gonna call me up from Texas. “Mr. Trump, sir, you have thousands and thousands of calls from Texas. They’re all your friends. They heard you speak one night. Mr. Trump! They’re very upset. President Trump, they’re very upset.”
[APPLAUSE]
They’re gonna walk in and they’re gonna say – go ahead, what the hell –
[“TRUMP!” CHANTS]
They’re gonna walk in. They’re gonna say, “President Trump! Thousands and thousands of calls from Texas – they are so upset with you, Mr. President. They can’t stand the amount with which you’re winning by.

He goes on in this vein for a long time, detailing the many ways he will win (“on trade”, “at the border”, “with your military”, “on health care”, “with Common Core”, and by having “saved the Second Amendment 100%!”).1 The imaginary Texas public keeps begging him to stop, and he refuses.

Of course, this is bizarre stuff. On the one hand, he develops this id-driven, parodic version of a platform consisting of simply listing policy areas, announcing that he will win at them, and moving on. On the other, far more confusing hand, he goes to great lengths to describe the people pleading with him to stop winning so much. This is a man who, again, is running for actual President of a country, so the amazement in that Tweet seems warranted. But oddly enough, Trump’s routine rang a bell for me.

This might be because Trump has done this before. People who are plugged in to conservative media may know this already, but this idea that the American people will beg Trump to stop winning is one of his favorite bits. A little research shows him using very similar rhetoric at an NRA rally in Louisville on May 20, in Billings, Montana on May 16, in Syracuse on April 16, in South Carolina on February 19, at Liberty University on January 18, and in Reno on January 10. My favorite write-up is probably this one by Jack Moore in GQ (describing a speech in Albany on April 12). Like me and other liberal elitists, he mistakenly interprets what he’s seeing as a one-time meltdown, where a Trump voter would likely recognize it as the reliable, beloved bit of rhetorical gold that its constant reuse shows it to be.  But Moore also goes on to say (correctly I think ):

But if it’s possible, the weirdest part of the rant wasn’t the fact that the TrumpBot4500’s wiring short circuited leading him to just repeat the words “win” and “winning” so many times that they began to lose all meaning. No, the weirdest part of the rant was the picture it painted of a world, where Trump is President and he makes America win so much that the American people actually beg him to stop winning.

I guess what I’m really noticing here is that simply offering a straightforward description of this speech act is fascinating.2

But the use on the campaign trail wasn’t what I was remembering. With some modest additional research, I suddenly remembered that Trump did nearly the exact same thing in a sketch on Saturday Night Live (here’s a Hulu link if that works for you).

Winning

For most of the sketch, various characters just tell Trump how well things are going; Putin has backed down, the economy is in great shape, etc. It’s not great comedy: The actors seem uncomfortable, the audience isn’t laughing much, and, as we’re about to see, the whole thing feels way too much like Trump’s actual campaign rhetoric, because at around 2:55 Taran Killam’s character enters and says:

“We have got a big problem. It’s the American people, sir. They’re just sick of winning! They’re winning so much! It’s just too great, sir.”

As he did in Texas, Trump insists that people are just going to have to accept the winning. The sketch ends with a direct address to the camera in which he insists that his actual Presidency will be even better.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think Trump completely stole this whole idea from Saturday Night Live. He hosted on November 7, 2015, and he was talking about people begging him to stop winning at least as far back as September, 2015. As far as I can tell, this is the first time it goes on at this length, or where various policy areas are mentioned as areas where he has won without any specifics (if anything, SNL has more policy detail than the bit in his Texas speech). So it is certainly possible that some of his favorite campaign lines were actually written by comedy writers who were making fun of him.

Still, we don’t necessarily need to ask whether a man running for President of the United States has based a key part of his campaign speeches on a lightly plagiarized version of a comedy sketch.3 The important thing, the part that no one can argue, is that a key part of his campaign speeches appeared in a comedy sketch, where it was a joke; and furthermore, he clearly knows about this, because he was there, helping make fun of it.

The rational explanation for the appearance of this routine in so many of Trump’s later speeches is that he’s joking; it’s hyperbole for comedic effect, just something to amuse the crowd. I want this to be true, because he might be the President someday. But I can’t quite believe it.

For one thing, the crowd doesn’t treat it like a joke. If you listen to that speech in Texas, they aren’t really laughing; they’re cheering. For another, there are way too many platform-style talking points in these moments, things that you’re not supposed to turn into a big joke. His constituents don’t think it’s funny to say that you’ve eliminated Common Core or “saved the Second Amendment 100%”. Those are genuine policy goals that they take seriously. Politicians don’t make jokes about that stuff—you didn’t see Obama working the crowd by saying, “You’ll all say, Mr. President, how’d you get us out of Iraq so fast?” The basic reason you don’t do that is that it’s only a joke if you obviously won’t achieve those goals—it’s not a joke to just list stuff you think will happen. So does he really expect to get rid of Common Core, or is this something like the idea of people begging him to stop winning—funny only because it’s clearly absurd?

This brings us back to the two questions at the top of the post. For question one, we would seem to have an obvious answer, at least in this one little corner of Trump’s speeches. Does he mean what he says? Surely not, since: 1) These things are flagrantly absurd, and 2) He appeared in a show making fun of these things as obvious jokes.

Yet we also know that 1) He keeps mixing this obvious joke with his actual policy, 2) The crowds cheer rather than laughing. And all of this is made only more confusing by the fact that the reality appears to be warping to fit the TV comedy show—the bit just keeps getting longer and more absurd, to the point that in Texas Trump was performing lines for both himself and his fictional exhausted public.

I think we also have to add one last consideration: Do we have any evidence, from any point in his history, that Trump ever didn’t think he was going to win? However you define winning, doesn’t it seem like he genuinely believes (this may be his most genuine belief) that he is going to triumph? This is where we get back to Question 2. What does Trump think he’s doing up there on stage? He was in the sketch, but does he know it’s a joke? Did some part of him doubt it was truly a joke even when he was on the show? Is he able to hold both beliefs at once, simultaneously knowing that he’s repeating a joke, and truly believing that everything he’s describing will come true in real life?

In the end, I don’t think we can ever know. Is he joking, lying, or just wrong? The answer requires a journey into the mind of Trump. It’s a journey only he can make; but I’m not sure even he knows if he ever has.


1. Also like most Trump transcripts, this one contains a lot of phrases that sound like bad machine translations. On Common Core, for instance, he says, “You’re gonna end it and bring education local”, and again, that other one is “they can’t believe you’ve saved the Second Amendment 100%!”

2. Marlow, in Heart of Darkness: “There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

3. I haven’t seen him credit the SNL writers/cast in his speeches, for what I take to be obvious reasons, but I don’t want to accuse him of anything—maybe he has (this would be kind of incredible).

The Trump Minimum

Now that Trump has essentially won the GOP nomination, those of us who live in the U.S. have to confront a deeply troubling reality: At some point in the near future, tens of millions of our fellow Americans will have voted in favor of Donald Trump becoming President. This seems destined to go down in history as a fascinating combination of shame and idiocy.1 But just how bad will it be? How many of us are going to officially register our opinion that Donald Trump is not only acceptable but also preferable to another human being as a candidate for the world’s most powerful job?

In this post I attempt to find the Trump Minimum, the absolute best case scenario for this nation as it attempts to live with itself from 2017 on.2 The question: What is the lowest possible number of people who will wind up voting for Trump?

I’m ignoring two possibilities here. First, that Trump won’t run—either he’ll suddenly realize that he might actually have to do the job, and panic and quit; or he’ll run out of money because he has been a secret poor person this whole time; or Paul Ryan will decide that he’d like “history” (one year from now and after) to remember him kindly and will orchestrate a convention coup. In that case Trump will only have his primary votes; these promise to be pretty substantial, already topping 10 million as of this Washington Post article from April. I’m not sure primary votes matter in quite the same way, though. The stakes are just lower in those contests; some people might be voting tactically without hoping for the candidate to win, and others might just be gambling.

The second possibility is that Trump wins. Recent polls do show the field narrowing. Personally, I don’t think this is very likely.3 But if he does win, we’re going to have way more important things to worry about. (Also, I suspect that if he does win we might be more angry at the people who failed to vote against him—who knew he was bad and let it happen anyway. But that’s just a guess.)

My Method

This is all going to be pretty straightforward. I take a margin of victory for the Democrat—I’m just going to say Clinton from here on out, since she’s more likely to win the nomination—along with the third party vote and use that to figure out what percentage of the popular vote Trump receives.4 I’m going to ignore the electoral college as well as demographic breakdowns; both are important and interesting, and the latter affects the overall popular vote, but I really just want big-picture numbers here. I’ll leave the story behind the numbers to the reader’s imagination.

I also estimate overall turnout, which tells me how many people are voting in the first place. I found it pretty tough to find a good source for how many eligible voters there are in the USA, so I used this reliable-seeming Wikipedia page on Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections, which shows this trend:

EligibleVoters

That’s not the world’s worst trend line, so I just used it to predict that there will be 240 million eligible voters this year. That feels like kind of a strange method, and definitely not like very good social science, but there were 235 million eligible voters last time, so it seems like as good a guess as any.

Scenarios

We’ll start with a pretty plausible, and therefore slightly depressing scenario. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has the race essentially tied as of this writing, so we’ll use a previous close election as our Sad Baseline: In 1960 JFK defeated Nixon by just .17% in the popular vote. That’s perfect for a sad winning margin.

Since 1932, which is when my data starts for this, turnout has ranged from 49% (in 1996) to 62.8% (in 1960—so not only was the result a dead heat, but tons of people weighed in on it). In the past few elections turnout has hovered in the low to mid 50’s. Since this is the Sad Baseline, we’ll assume decent turnout of 55% (thus boosting the raw numbers of Trump voters). And finally, we’ll assume that third party performance is just under the historical median—call it 2%. All together, this gives us:

Percentage Voters
Clinton 49.09% 64,792,000
Trump 48.92% 64,568,000

That’s over 64 million votes for Donald Trump. Thanks to historic population growth, only Barack Obama has ever received more votes in a real Presidential election (though he did do it twice).

Those assumptions were about as pessimistic as possible—good for figuring out the top of the range, but otherwise counter to the spirit of the Trump Minimum. So let’s consider a Plausible Good Baseline. In 2008 Obama beat McCain by 7.27%. That might be about as strong a margin as you can hope for in an era this partisan, so let’s steal that. Let’s also gamble that the historically bad favorability ratings for both candidates will depress turnout to a tie with its worst level in the last 80 years—49%. Those adjustments to the previous scenario lead you to just over 53 million Trump voters.

We’ve still got one powerful lever, though: Third Parties. These have had a pretty substantial spoiler effect in U.S. History; it was only 24 years ago that Ross Perot pulled 19% of the vote. So far there’s no indication that anyone will come close to matching that, but there’s some evidence that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could reach as much as 10% of the vote. If we bump our third party cut up to that, and keep everything else the same, we arrive at a Plausible Gary Scenario wherein Trump receives just 49 million votes.

All of this is well and good, but what if we ratchet the numbers up to a historic disgrace? Is it really so implausible that Trump will do or say something that loses him the votes of 9 out of 10 women? Or that he will quit the race and return to it the next day, on multiple occasions? Or insist that Donald Sterling be his Vice President? In hypothetical times like these, we really ought to turn to the biggest margin of victory in modern U.S. Presidential election history: Warren G. Harding’s 26.17% blowout of James Cox.5

Let’s also start thinking outside the box about voter turnout. Sure, 49% is bad, but what about the examples of other nations? Surely some of them care even less than us. I looked into it and, no, they really don’t, at least not in countries that are doing pretty well.6 Among OECD nations, only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland are more apathetic about voting. Only 40% of Switzerland’s voting age population votes, so let’s just take that as a worst-case-scenario number for U.S. turnout, too.

Finally, we’ll ratchet Gary up to 15%. Why not? After all, in this scenario Trump keeps quitting and promoting a man who was banned from the NBA.

With these parameters, we have reached the Trump Minimum, the absolute lowest number of votes that he could reach if we hit historically plausible extremes. The final count: 28 million votes.

So there you have it. Donald Trump is virtually guaranteed to get at least 28 million votes in November. A minimum of ~30 million people living in this country will choose to place Donald Trump in charge of maintaining the nuclear arsenal, repairing our broken justice system, and engaging in diplomacy with leaders who often are not old white men.

I’ll admit I wanted that number to be lower. I even played around with one last scheme: The Return of Teddy Scenario. In this one Teddy Roosevelt returns from the dead along with his former opponent Eugene Debs, and together they replicate their record-setting third-party performances in the 1912 election to steal 33.4% of the vote. Gary Johnson still runs (nothing has stopped him so far in real life), though he only adds 10% to the third-party haul, since some of his coalition prefers the Bull Moose charisma. Most voters are turned off by the prospect of voting for a reanimated dead person, so turnout dips to 30%. And as a hyper-masculine old-money white man with century-old values, Teddy pulls disproportionately from the Republican vote; Debs does pull some Bernie supporters out of Clinton’s coalition, but her margin still improves to an even 30%. In the Return of Teddy Scenario, which is not likely, Trump receives just 13.3% of the vote, losing to both Clinton and a long dead park enthusiast. But he still pulls 11 million votes.

There’s just no way around it: The man is going to get a lot of votes. Realistically closer to 60 million, but at the very least about 30 million. We’re all going to know someone who voted for him; we’re all going to go into future elections with hard evidence that people who like him are out there voting again. But there’s still the possibility that, like Barry Goldwater or Walter Mondale, he’ll lose badly enough that we can think of ourselves as the country that overwhelmingly rejected him. We just have to hope he’s less like Richard Nixon and more like James Cox—his electoral performance remembered mainly for how thoroughly he was defeated.


1. I used to say this about re-electing George W. Bush, too, so it’s possible that I’m either overreacting or underestimating what’s next. Also, I was originally calling it one of our most shameful and idiotic moments, but then I thought about things that happened before 1950.

2. To be fair, we often don’t seem to have a problem hanging around with evidence of our worst moral failures. Strom Thurmond, who ran for President in 1948 on a pro-Jim Crow platform, only left office in 2003—and he wasn’t even voted out; he just died.

3. Anything can happen, and major party nominees always have a decent enough shot at the White House that it makes sense to worry about the dangerous ones. But speaking purely subjectively, I just don’t see how he overcomes demographic reality. Women and people of color hate him even more than they hated Romney and McCain, who both lost. The theory behind his winning rests on activating enough “missing white voters” (read: racists) to overcome this, but I don’t see how enough of them are A)  still alive, B) eager to vote now, despite having sat out two elections featuring a black candidate.

4. I don’t allocate the third party vote to one party or another, but it shouldn’t really matter for these purposes. If you thought a Libertarian, for instance, would take many more voters from Trump than from Clinton, you could just change the Clinton margin of victory; but I’m just making up that margin in the first place, and why complicate a made up number? We don’t care why people are or aren’t voting for Trump—we just care how many of them there are.

5. I don’t know why the 1920 election in particular. It’s interesting that it’s the first one in which women could vote, and the second biggest margin was in the very next election. Maybe only one party appealed to women voters? Three other things I want to put in this footnote: 1. I’m saying “modern” elections because my data only goes back to the 1820’s. Before that Monroe and Washington essentially ran unopposed, which screws up projects like this one. 2. Kind of funny that the VP on Cox’s ticket was FDR—guess he made up for it later. 3. I thought of Donald Sterling as a joke and was immediately convinced it was plausible. What better choice for Donald than, essentially, himself: a racist real estate billionaire named Donald.

6. I submit this as a replacement phrase for “developed countries”.

The President Was Here

This post uses Most Distinctive Words to analyze what we talk about when we talk about Presidents.*

WikiPresidentia

I begin with the Wikipedia pages for each U.S. President. I downloaded these in January and then got distracted with work, so they’re a few months out of date, but still relatively fresh compared to most of the texts I work on. I wasn’t too strict about what I took; basically I started at the top of the article and stopped when I felt the article was over. Just having this much gives you access to an underrated form of quantitative textual analysis: checking how long things are. Here are the word counts for each President’s article:

President Word Count
LBJ 18485
JFK 17098
Ike 16458
FDR 16334
Lincoln 15765
Reagan 15374
Wilson 15234
Harding 15220
Grant 15107
Teddy 14868
Nixon 14366
W 14200
Washington 13809
Andrew Johnson 13674
McKinley 12988
Ford 12764
Jackson 12007
Carter 11958
Tyler 11944
Truman 11905
Jefferson 11643
Garfield 11555
Pierce 11537
Clinton 11497
Obama 11437
Hoover 11420
Madison 11008
Adams 10836
George H.W. Bush 10832
Cleveland 10060
Taft 9512
Coolidge 9239
Arthur 9162
JQA 8917
Hayes 8906
Ben Harrison 8423
Buchanan 7035
Van Buren 6966
Monroe 6801
WHH 6714
Taylor 6194
Polk 6096
Fillmore 4774

To me this variation appears to have barely any rhyme or reason. LBJ is a solid contender for the top spot; his Presidency is very tough to rank, because it includes both an incredible domestic agenda (Civil Rights Act, Medicare) and arguably the worst foreign policy agenda (Vietnam). But if you take the “absolute value” of everything he did, there’s no denying he’s one of the most consequential Presidents. Fillmore is also a decent contender for last place, with less than a fourth of LBJ’s word count; I think he’s probably high in the running for “most forgotten President”.** But in between, things quickly get strange. Eisenhower ahead of 4-termer FDR? John Tyler ahead of Thomas Jefferson? Harding ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? Monroe near the bottom?

The big lesson here is that these pages are pretty weird artifacts. Their authors will have stylistic tics (maybe Tyler got a verbose guy, and Monroe got an Imagiste), and editorial decisions might displace whole sections into other articles. For example, in Jefferson’s article, the Louisiana Purchase gets about 250 words, but there’s also a standalone article about the Louisiana Purchase that’s about 5,000 words long—i.e., more worthy of discussion than the entire administration and life of Millard Fillmore, according to random Wikipedia editors.

Most Distinctive Words

Still, even with these idiosyncrasies, we ought to be able to extract something interesting from the language of these articles. For instance, which Presidents’ write-ups have the most to do with slavery, or war? What are the most remarked-upon aspects of, say, Teddy’s life, or the founding fathers, or the Gilded Age? What words, if any, set apart the discourse surrounding an icon like Lincoln from that around a tremendous moral failure like Andrew Jackson?

To explore these questions I turned to Most Distinctive Words (MDWs). This is basically a measure of the words that appear more frequently in a given text than we would expect, based on their frequency in some comparison corpus. In my case, that means checking which words appear disproportionately often in one guy’s article, compared to what we’d see if the words were distributed evenly across all articles.*** So, for instance, we might expect to see “atomic” appear distinctively often for Truman, since he dropped more atom bombs than anyone else—and, in fact, “atomic” is a distinctive word for him (though “bombing” gets you Reagan and LBJ as well).

A few notes about the MDWs you’ll see in the rest of this post: To make life easier, I converted everything to lowercase (that way “train” and “Train” aren’t different words, just because one appears at the beginning of a sentence). I also removed stop words (things like “the” and “of”, which are so frequent that they can skew things, and also are often boring), numbers, and symbols. Finally, I took out the ordinarily used names of Presidents (so, “andrew”, “jackson”, and “jacksons”, the latter to catch possessives), because otherwise they dominate the data, since they are naturally very distinctive of their articles.

The System Works

When you check the MDWs for a particular guy, you usually find a pretty nice encapsulation of his Presidency’s Greatest Hits. Here are the top few for Lincoln:†

Lincoln MDWs
slavery
union
illinois
emancipation
confederate
kentucky
proclamation
douglas
war
mcclellan
land
booth
salem
springfield
free
slave
gettysburg
republicanism

You start with his two signature issues, pick up his home states, roll through his political acts and opponents, and even capture his assassin and, three cells later, one after the other, the reason he was killed. Another good example is Andrew Jackson:

Andrew Jackson MDWs
carolina
creek
rachel
tennessee
hermitage
indian
indians
orleans
south
calhoun
lands
removal
bank
banks
seminole
tribes

You’ve got his famous battle (“orleans”), his refusal to understand finance (“banks”), and his penchant for genocide—rendered all the more striking when you realize that “creek” refers to the Creek tribe (now called Muscogee), who lost a brutal war against Jackson and years later were also victims of the Indian Removal Act.

Since the MDWs work pretty often, it’s pretty striking when they depart from expectations. For some guys, this means a focus on the pre-Presidency—Madison’s top word is “constitution”, Reagan’s are littered with California and Hollywood terms, and Eisenhower’s focus on war terminology for eight straight words until they arrive at “interstate”, before jumping back to “ii”. Ulysses S. Grant is similar—unsurprising, since his own memoir barely mentions that he was President.

In another case that surprised me a little, the focus is on the post-Presidency:

William Howard Taft MDWs
court
justice
chief
v
supreme
opinion

Taft was the only President who ever went on to become a Supreme Court justice. That’s distinguishing in either sense of the word, and a nice legacy for a guy whose is probably best known to the public for being too fat to get out of a bathtub. (The article I have says that the evidence for this actually happening is unclear, but gives two sources for the distressingly ambiguous sentence “However, he once did overflow a bathtub.” I’m surprised and a little disappointed to say this whole sequence has been removed from the current version of the article.)

Another guy who surprised me was JFK. The word “assassination” is just 12th on his list; but on reflection, this may have something to do with the 8,000 word separate article on it, not to be confused with the 19,000 wordJohn F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories” article, which is longer than any Presidential article.††

Rules of Distinction

One feature of MDWs is that they privilege proper nouns. This makes sense when you consider just how specific (i.e., distinct) proper nouns are: all sorts of kids have dogs, but only Oblio has Arrow. This means there are a few things that define you if you get a Wikipedia page:

  • Your home. A President’s home state usually appears in his top few MDWs. If a guy has two home states, they both appear: Lincoln gets Illinois and Kentucky, Obama gets Illinois and Hawaii (and, even higher, Chicago). This isn’t a universal rule (JFK doesn’t have “massachusetts”), but it’s quite common.
  • Your wife. George has Martha, John has Abigail, Abe has Mary, Rutherford has Lucy, Herbert has Lou, Dwight has Mamie, Dick has Pat, Ron has Nancy, Bill has Hillary. You’re known by the person you love. But, there’s also:
  • You enemy. The first word for Washington is “british”; “confederate” makes the top five for Lincoln and Grant; Polk has his “mexico” and Truman his “korea”. Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, and Oswald make their expected lists. LBJ has not just “vietnam” but “goldwater”. And look back at the Jackson list above: creek, indian, indians, calhoun, bank, banks, seminole, tribes—that’s eight enemies in just 16 words (and another, “orleans”, is the site of a battle). For everyone, but especially for bloodthirsty maniacs, distinction is conferred by who and what we choose to fight.

Eras, In So Many Words

Another cool option with these MDWs is approaching from the other direction. Once we have them, we can pick a word and see who it encompasses. For instance, take the word “gold”. This turns out to be an MDW for Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley—in other words, every President but one (Arthur) from 1868-1901. This is probably a function of the currency debates that dominated that era (the last three guys also have “silver” as an MDW), but it’s also a nice, very literal way to capture the Gilded Age.

Or take another definitive American word: “slave”. That word and “slaves” appear as MDWs for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Jackson—six of the first seven Presidents, and all of the ones who owned slaves themselves. (JQA, like his father, didn’t own any slaves, and the two words appear in his article in the context of his fierce opposition to slavery; for the rest of them, the words are there mainly because they owned slaves.) After this crew, those two words largely disappear, with the exceptions of Fillmore (he had “moderate anti-slavery views”, according to the article) and Lincoln (for obvious reasons).

But the issue does not disappear. The words “slavery” or “antislavery” appear as MDWs for JQA, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, before coming to a close with Lincoln. That’s everyone between the Founding Fathers and the close of the Civil War with the exceptions of William Henry Harrison (who served one month) and John Tyler (who was in office, but didn’t exactly serve at all). Many of these Presidents were slave-owners themselves, but we see a shift away from personal ownership as the focus (with a few overlap cases), and toward the rise of a political cause—from slaves to slavery. It’s a striking lexical marker of the transition from one paradigm to another, maybe somehow indicating the point at which Wikipedia writers and readers feel that Presidents were “of their time” instead of responsible for it.

A Final Mystery

I want to end with something I noticed but can’t quite explain. The word “president” actually appears as an MDW in several cases. Here they are:

word frequency p value President
president 101 0.000131294 Tyler
president 102 0.001869553 Andrew Johnson
president 74 0.002524355 Taft
president 105 0.006078532 W
president 80 0.008887996 George HW Bush
president 52 0.00954079 WH Harrison
president 96 0.016850757 Nixon
president 86 0.018566542 Ford
president 98 0.038807297 Reagan

In some of these cases, it seems like the word might have to do with unique relationships to the office. Harrison died immediately, Tyler took over even though no one wanted him (he was known as “His Accidency“), while succession laws were still untested, and Johnson abused the office to veto Congress until they impeached him (note: if you include “presidential” in these results, you add Clinton to the mix, suggesting impeachment may play a role). Still, even if this is right, it only explains a few articles. I have no idea what any of this has to do with Taft.

And then there’s this: Every Republican President since 1968 has the word “president” as an MDW. What’s more, in this era it’s only Republicans—Carter, Clinton, and Obama are all missing from that list. Why is this happening? Is it some sort of conservative preference for hierarchy/authority? A right-wing love of the institution? The tendency of these Presidents to wield presidential authority in problematic ways (Watergate, the pardon of the guy who did Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Decider and his father)? Just a random tic from a prolific Wikipedia editor? (Even then, it might interesting that the editor of these articles has that tic.)

I looked at the word’s usage in the articles in hope of clarity, but the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. I did notice that, in the George W. Bush article, for instance, there was a tendency to call him “President Bush” in photo captions (which are included in the articles I analyzed)—but this doesn’t explain why other articles don’t follow the same practice. This all put me in mind of a bumper sticker I used to see in Texas, that looked roughly like this:

WthePresident

I never knew how to interpret it. What’s the point of stating that the current President is the President? I am being completely honest when I say that I don’t know if this is supposed to be combative, reassuring, snarky, patriotic, a sign of the tribe, or something else I haven’t even thought of. So it’s interesting to see a sort of version of it replicated in these MDWs—105 uses of the word President††† in an article that tells you, right at the top, that it’s about a President. It’s an interesting form of distinction for the modern Republican President—the simple confirmation that they held the job.

 


Notes

*It was very tempting to use this as the title of the post, but I think you just can’t do that anymore. If you Google “what we talk about when we talk about” -love (the last part is so that you don’t get any actual references to Raymond Carver’s short story), you get 211,000 results. Based on those results, here are a few of the things about which we talk about what we talk about when we talk about them:

  • Apple and Compelled Speech
  • Gun Violence
  • “The Uyghurs” (quotation marks in original)
  • Indicators
  • Clone Club
  • Causality
  • GIFs
  • God
  • Minimalism

** I doubt he wins though; his name is too weird. My guess is Ben Harrison.

***Specifically, I used word frequencies from all articles to set expected values, and word frequencies in given articles to set observed values. I then used a Fisher’s exact test to determine which words were significantly more present than expected. I did not look for words that were missing (e.g., if a President’s article says “war” much less than ordinary). My thanks to Mark Algee-Hewitt for helping me write the R code used in this project, and for explaining MDWs to me in the first place.

† In all cases, the words are ordered by p-value, where lower is taken to mean “more distinctive”. Here and below, I’m pasting in partial lists for space purposes.

†† This makes it longer than Macbeth, as well as 7 other Shakespeare plays. See also the 2,800 word “Assassination of John F. Kennedy in Popular Culture” article.

††† W’s article has 105 occurrences of the word “president”, more than three times as many as George Washington, who not only has a roughly equal-length article, but practically invented the office.