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What's in a County Name? Presidents' Day Edition

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The respect Americans have for their presidents can be measured in the thousands of statues, parks, airports and buildings that bear the name of former White House residents, but there are limits to the love.

Out of the 3,100-plus counties in the United States, only 197 are named for former presidents and data around those names and numbers is revealing.

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As you might expect there are more counties, 31, named for George Washington than for any other president. Being first has its privileges. In fact, being early in general has its privileges. More than half of the 197 counties, 129 of them, are named after one of the first 10 presidents – Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. (These presidents' bars are shown in orange.)

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There are some giants on that list, of course – Jefferson, Madison, Jackson – but also some more peculiar names, including William Henry Harrison, who gave a two-hour inaugural speech in frigid temperatures and promptly died 32 days later of complications to pneumonia.

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There are other oddities as well. Consider Illinois, where there are six counties named after former presidents, but none are named for Abraham Lincoln.

The counties named after presidents are scattered across 40 states, with 10 states having no presidential counties: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona, Hawaii, California and Alaska.

Looking at the map of the United States, you may notice a perceived coastal bias against presidential counties. In fact, on that map you’ll notice something of a sweet spot that lies west of Pennsylvania and east of the Mountain States, where there are more presidential counties.

That’s not necessarily about those states feeling more sentimental about the Oval Office or the coasts being less enamored. States in the east joined the Union early, but many of their jurisdictions had already existed for decades and were named for places back home across the Atlantic, places like Sussex and Suffolk. States in the west joined much later, but again, after many of their communities had already formed.

Those states in the middle of the country, however, joined in the mid-1800s, when the country was still young and much of their land was wild frontier. It was easy to simply point to a parcel of property and name it for Martin Van Buren, who was just elected president when Michigan joined the union in 1837, or James Polk, who signed the bill admitting Iowa to the United States.

And when viewing the presidential counties and their locations through the prism of modern politics and economics, some trends emerge.

They skew strongly Republican – Mr. Romney beat President Obama in the presidential counties, 52% to 47%. In fact, 79% of the presidential counties voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

They also skew toward lower incomes – 76% have a median household income under $50,000 – and toward being rural – the population in 65% of the presidential counties is more rural than urban.

These numbers are more than just happenstance. They are all related – rural communities tend to be less wealthy than urban ones and tend to be more Republican in their voting patterns – and they are revealing in how many of the states honored the presidents when they assigned their names to counties.

The big urban centers in most states predate those places becoming states. Pennsylvania joined the union in 1787, but Philadelphia dates to the 1600s. There was a city of Chicago before there was a state of Illinois. Fur traders were in St. Louis long before there was a Missouri. The identities of those big urban centers were already established.

So when the state legislatures and governors were looking to honor presidents, they often settled on areas a bit more far-flung, away from the population centers and the core of their states.

Those counties around urban centers tended to be given names that honored local leaders – such as Daniel Cook in Illinois, who was a strong supporter of statehood. Or they were given names that honored local history – such as Wayne in Michigan, which was the name for the former county of the Northwest Territory, in which Detroit was the county seat. Or they honored some well-known geographic feature – such as Cuyahoga, which is the river that bisects Cleveland’s home county in Ohio.

In other words, the states believed in honoring the presidents, but only after addressing local concerns first. In that way the presidential counties are living examples of the power of federalism.

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