On September 26, I received an email on behalf of Obama for America. It wasn’t the most bizarre one yet, or even the most bizarre email in recent memory. Just last month, we saw one from ‘Beyonce Knowles’ (subject line: “I don’t usually email you” – no kidding). Over Yom Kippur alone, I got one from Kal Penn (subject line included the phrase “do it with you” and the word “totes”; the email was not about what the subject line implied), and another from Obama himself (subject line: “I’m asking one last time” – I sincerely hope this one was intended to get Sasha and Malia into bed on a school night).
This particular email was from one ‘Yohannes Abraham’ – if that’s his real name – subject line: ‘1,554 people named Mordechai’. That the Obama campaign knows my name is no surprise. To wit, some other emails they’ve sent in the past few weeks:
This weekend is huge, Mordechai
This is in your hands, Mordechai
Mordechai, are you with me?
Like all my close friends, Obama includes my name in the subject line of every email. Regardless, the specificity of this particular email intrigued me:
Mordechai – Hey, check this out — according to our records, there are 1,554 people named Mordechai who are already registered to vote in this election. Today, I have a quick mission for you: Make it 1,554 plus one — register to vote now.
My initial reaction was to call bullshit. And in a fit of feverish procrastination, I set out to prove it:
1554 people named ‘Mordechai’ who are registered to vote? As someone named ‘Mordechai’, I know it’s not a particularly common name. But how uncommon?
I got through about 500 words in this vein (excerpted below for no constructive purpose) before I realized two things. One, procrastination can only take you so far in law school (that is, not very). Two, my assumptions were all wrong.
In case you are – for some reason – not so interested in reading exactly what I wrote two weeks ago and decided wasn’t worth publishing, here’s a rough summary: the most-recent freely-available data dates from the 1990 census. Only by assuming the maximum possible number of Mordechais in 1990, that no Mordechais have since died, that no Mordechais have since immigrated, and that the greatest possible number of Mordechais were born every year through 1994 (we’re counting ‘voting Mordechais’, not just ‘Mordechais’) – only then could the number of Mordechais registered to vote approach the number included in Obama’s email.
The point was that there probably aren’t that many Mordechais registered to vote.
As indicated above, my assumptions were all wrong. Here are some things I somehow didn’t take into account:
1) One assumption I used was that a ‘Mordechai’ was as likely as any other American (~70%) to be registered to vote. Wrong. I knew Jews are more likely to register than the general population, but I didn’t realize the extent of the disparity. Overall, the number is in the mid-80s (and reaches nearly 100% in certain Florida counties). The upshot is that fewer Mordechais can produce a given number of ‘voting Mordechais’, greatly relaxing the assumptions necessary to arrive at 1,554 as a plausible estimate.
2) While the Jewish population in general is relatively static, Orthodox populations have experienced ‘explosive’ growth (or ‘modest’ growth, depending on who you ask) in recent decades. While this would not change the actual assumptions – especially given that I assumed maximum possible birthrate anyway – it does add, ever so slightly, to the plausibility of Obama’s claim. And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to make a conjecture about parents who would name their kid Mordechai. But you never know – it’s that sort of assumption that got me into this post in the first place.
3) If the Obama campaign makes a claim about registered voters, they’re probably right: “President Obama’s reelection team has taken canvassing to the next technological level, introducing a free iPhone app that maps the location of nearby Democrats, identifying them by first name, last initial and home address.” (Creepy.)
My obsolete-but-entertaining calculation:
1554 people named ‘Mordechai’ who are registered to vote? As someone named ‘Mordechai’, I know it’s not a particularly common name. But how uncommon? According to howmanyofme.com, which uses data from the 1990 census:
There are fewer than 1,572 people in the U.S. with the first name Mordechai.
Before you read too much into that very specific-looking number (1,572), note the language: ‘fewer than’. Turns out, any rare name returns the same result. ‘Fewer than 1,572′ is just the database’s way of saying ‘your name is statistically insignificant’. But let’s imagine for a moment that 1,571 (upper limit on ‘fewer than’ 1,572) is the actual number of Mordechais who were alive in the United States in 1990. Because the census was 22 years ago, every single one of them is now eligible to vote. Assuming no Mordechais were born, no Mordechais have died, and no Mordechais have immigrated, 99% (1,555/1,571) of all Mordechais have registered to vote. But it’s unrealistic to imagine that the number of Mordechais has remained the same since 1990, so how many Mordechais are around today? Well, as explained on howmanyofme.com:
The 1990 census was the last census to include complete name data. The 2000 census didn’t include data for first names, and the 2010 census isn’t out yet.
So it’s impossible to say how many Mordechais were born between 1990 and 1994 (the years of birth that will be eligible to vote come November), but thanks to the Social Security Administration’s publication of the 1000 most-popular baby names by year, we can again calculate an upper limit. According to the SSA, ‘Mordechai’ was one of the 1000 most-popular baby names exactly once, in 2003, when it was ranked 962.
Someone born in 2003 is obviously too young to vote – but without knowing what the name ranked from 90-94, how can we calculate how many Mordechais were born in the relevant years? Well, we can look at the top-1000 list for each of those years, and assume that Mordechai was the 1001st most-popular one.
In 1990, the 1000th most-popular name was Deante, with 111, so we’ll give Mordechai 110.
In 1991, the 1000th most-popular name was Deric, with 115, so we’ll give Mordechai 114.
In 1992, the 1000th most-popular name was Kane, with 118, so we’ll give Mordechai 117.
1n 1993, the 1000th most-popular name was Eloy, with 119, so we’ll give Mordechai 118.
In 1994, the 1000th most-popular name was Mickey, with 124, so we’ll give Mordechai 123.
Added together, those numbers come out to 582. With 1,571, we now estimate there are – at most – 2153 voting-eligible Mordechais. If 1,555 have registered to vote, that makes 72%. According to the US Census Bureau, approximately 70% of all eligible voters are registered. In other words, the only way to get the numbers to line up is to assume… [Editor’s note: you’ve already seen the list above. It still isn’t pretty.]