Populism in National and State Politics

This year’s populist backlash in national politics has led some to draw comparisons between perceived establishment and anti-establishment politicians at the state level. While mutual endorsements between politicians on the national level and state level affirms the idea that elections such as the gubernatorial race in New Jersey are a microcosm of what occurred in the Democratic primary, the differences between federal and state politics are stark. From everything to the party apparatus and media environment, to turnout and policies, state and national elections are influenced by different factors. Two areas where the populist comparisons fall short are policies and civic engagement.

Policy implications at the national and state level differ greatly, especially when the country or a state is struggling economically. New Jersey is a state that is solidly Democratic in terms of national politics, that has had a majority Democrat state legislature more or less for the past few decades. Defining progressive policies such as a progressive tax system, where taxes are higher on the wealthy, may sit well for the national public, but they are not necessarily advantageous at the state level. Although there is considerable disagreement among economists on state fiscal policies, there is evidence that New Jersey loses revenue due to fleeing wealthy residents. As pointed out by liberal organizations, only a handful of millionaires in New Jersey leave specifically for lower taxes, but they have a disproportionate impact, as they contribute more revenue. Even by the more conservative estimates from liberal organizations finding that the revenue is a small percentage of state income, the dollar amount is still in the millions. The progressive tax proposals of Bernie Sanders at the national level however, have a different effect as the highest earning taxpayers are more constrained in trying to pay less. We don’t hear too much of rich Americans simply revoking their citizenship and moving because of taxes. What this means is that it is arguably more difficult for a left-leaning populist figure to run on the same exact platform as the one who did on the national level. The federal government has more authority and influence than state governments in terms of enforcing policy.

Political organizing is another area where populism at the state and national level diverge. The rise in populism in 2016 maybe a result of the public feeling that they can not create real change. Recent research suggests that skepticism towards the elitist nature of our political system has some merit. The research coincides with the intuitive idea that it is difficult for ordinary citizens to have an impact on national politics and policies. Populist candidates fill this void, by claiming that they will better represent ordinary citizens’ interests. At the local and state levels, populism has less of an appeal and should in theory. On the national level, populists close the gap in democracy between the people and the system, whereas voting for who’s on your school board has a more observable and direct impact. Statistically speaking, a single vote matters more in local and state elections, which are often close, and have no electoral college that decreases the significance of a vote.

Populism appears to naturally grow in an environment where the public feels democracy is not representing the will of common people. The political environment of state elections is one where the absence of features such as the electoral college makes people feel that democracy is more direct. When the citizenry feels a democratic system is becoming increasingly indirect, populist candidates gain more traction and electoral success. It is much easier to claim the whole “system is rigged” when one reads about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in national elections, and backdoor deals to appease donors and other hidden constituents such as interest groups and lobbyists. While it has yet to be seen if progressive populism can transform into a serious movement at the state and local levels, it is undoubtedly easier to influence state and local officeholders over politicians in Washington. This ability to hold state politicians more accountable to promises and populist values lessens the need for populist candidates at the state level.

The Secret Weapon that Could Defeat Donald Trump


In almost every presidential campaign, the two candidates are roughly equally matched. Sometimes one side raises more money or has a slightly more technologically sophisticated campaign. But when it comes down to it, nominees of both parties will hire huge campaign staffs, mobilize thousands of volunteers and reach out to millions of potential voters.

The end result of all the time and money spent on campaigns roughly cancel each other out. When both sides are roughly equally matched there’s little opportunity to see the effect of these efforts.

In 2016, that might change.

Trump Doesn’t Have A Real Campaign-Clinton Does

In the beginning of September, Clinton had 51 field offices in Florida. Trump had just one. In Colorado, a 12 year old ran Trump’s campaign office for a time.

In terms of advertising, the Trump campaign and his allies have spent $83 million to Clinton’s $227 million, almost three times as much.

So what has the Trump campaign been spending money on? According to the Huffington Post, when Trump jacked up his campaign’s Trump Tower rent once the RNC started paying for it. He also flies back to Trump Tower almost every day, shunning the much cheaper option of sleeping on the road. In stark contrast, the Clinton campaign has gotten attention for its frugality, with many top advisors taking the bus between the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn and DC instead of the Acella.

The tough primary fight between Clinton and Sanders provoked fears that disappointed Sanders supporters would refuse to vote for Clinton in the general. After a few months of holdouts, those fears have dissipated and Sanders has campaigned aggressively for Clinton. The story on the other side has been different. After now infamous video of Trump surfaced recording him talking about sexual assault, a number of Republican elected officials un-endorsed him. The Republican National Committee has spent nothing on TV ads for Trump. In 2012, they spent $42 million supporting Mitt Romney.

Campaigns Matter

But will any of this matter on election day? Maybe Trump’s campaign disorganization is all insider baseball that won’t change any minds on election day. Since presidential campaigns of the past have been so evenly matched, it’s hard to prove that they do in fact make a difference. Responding to the Trump campaigns’ failure to open field offices, one Republican official speculated that, “Maybe the idea that you’re going to vote for Trump because someone knocked on your door is a little archaic.”

Lucky for the Clinton campaign, clever research has found that a campaigns on the ground organization does in fact matter–a lot.

Since opposing presidential campaigns largely cancel each other out, Political Scientists from Ryan D. Enos and Anthony Fowler instead compared the turnout of voters living in swing states to voters living in noncompetitive states. Voters in swing states receive a lot of effort from campaigns to get them to the polls. In uncompetitive states like New Jersey, there’s comparatively little activity.  

Comparing the difference in turnout of non-competitive states and competitive ones can demonstrate how much campaigns cause turnout to increase. They found that the effects are huge–about 4% for each campaign in 2012 for a total effect of 7-8 percentage points.

While a few percentage points doesn’t sound like much, it totals to millions of voters and is more than enough to make a difference. In 2012, Obama defeated Romney by quite a large margin–over 100 votes in the electoral college and 5 million individual votes. But if Obama didn’t run a much of a campaign and lost 4% of this votes while Romney retained his share it would’ve been more than enough to tip the election.

An astute reader might object that voters in swing states are more likely to turn out because their vote matters, not because a campaign knocked on their door. Luckily, the authors considered this possibility and found it doesn’t hold water. For one, a variety of polling an experimental evidence has found little to no effect of pivotality–how close the election is–on turnout. Secondly, the authors tested campaign effects using the same method before the advent of modern campaign targeting found and that they were basically nonexist. Therefore, they’re confident that campaigns are making the difference.

By November 9th, the Clinton campaign will have made millions of phone calls and door knocks. It seems certain that the Trump campaign will have put in far less effort. At this point, they might be be preparing to start riots and dispute the election results. In the end, campaign organization matters, and Clinton has a huge advantage that could make the difference.

Defending Obama’s Syrian Refugee Agenda

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in American Foreign Policy with Professor Tizoc Chavez at Vanderbilt University.

There are over four and a half million Syrian refugees that are currently registered with the U.N. There exist humanitarian obligations. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol establish that refugees have the right to live and work in a country where they are safe. The civil war in Syria has killed over 200,000 people, and decreased the life expectancy by twenty years. Although there is no way that the U.S. alone can solve this problem, that doesn’t mean that we should stop at 10,000. If the U.S. were to admit 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, it would help reestablish its place as a leader in human rights. The U.S. would be once again leading by example, and therefore increase its soft power.

If the U.S. were to admit more Syrian refugees, ISIL’s recruitment ability would also be weakened, as its propaganda relies fundamentally on the ideas that the U.S. is intolerant towards Islam and Muslims and that the ISIL caliphate is the safest place in the world for Muslims. What better way to invalidate these claims than to offer a reasonable amount of Syrians admission to the U.S.?

Some, like Ted Cruz, have perpetuated the idea that the vast majority of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. are men who fit the terrorist profile, and this somehow makes it less of a humanitarian effort. However, 67% of refugees that the U.N. refers to the U.S. have been children under 12 years and women.

Many Americans fear that refugees are a detriment to the American economy, that admitting them is a charitable act that costs them a great deal because they require expensive resettlement and enormous amounts of welfare. However, after ten years, refugees receive about the same amount of benefits and reach an income of about 87% of U.S. born Americans. In fact, refugees actually improve the U.S.’s economy in the long run. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “refugee men are employed at a higher rate than their U.S.-born peers,” and women are employed at the same rate. With birth rates in the U.S. declining, Social Security is accelerating into bankruptcy as our population ages. More working age people in America means more people paying taxes to support social programs that benefit older Americans. Bolstering our population with younger immigrants who are willing and able to work is how the U.S. has continued to grow while Japan and some European countries have stagnated with their low birth rates. More working people in the U.S. also does not “take jobs” from “more deserving” Americans. The number of jobs are generally increased by immigrants, and this similarly will hold for refugees because they will be consuming goods and services, starting small business, and increasing demand for labor in America. The troubles that European countries face with massive influxes of refugees are largely social, not economic. From 1975 to 1995, the U.S. admitted nearly 500,000 Vietnamese refugees. Instead of being an economic burden on the U.S., the 1.9 million Vietnamese Americans today have a higher median household income than the average. As the education and skill levels of the two groups are roughly similar, there is no reason to believe Syrian refugees would be radically different from these Vietnamese Americans.

The biggest concern Americans openly raise about admitting Syrian refugees is security. However this concern is mostly founded on misconceptions about Syrians and Muslims in general, specifically that they and immigrants in general are much more prone to committing acts of violence than native born Americans. There is also the misconception that the U.S. currently does not or cannot properly vet refugees, when the vetting process for refugees is actually more intensive than it is for any other type of immigrant. For Syrian refugees the process can take up to three years and involves several federal departments such as Homeland Security and State, as well as national intelligence agencies. The refugee vetting process for the U.S. is so thorough, that out of 784,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 9/11, none have been found to be participating in terrorist activities in the U.S. On top of this, Syrian refugees are more extensively checked than refugees from other countries. In fact, our screening process for Syrian refugees is fundamentally much more extensive than that of European countries, which helps explain why the U.S. has not only experienced proportionally fewer issues than Europe due to fewer refugees, but far fewer even than that.

Before the Paris attacks, Americans narrowly approved Obama’s decision to admit more Syrian refugees at 51% to 45%, but immediately after the attacks, before even 2,000 Syrian refugees had moved to the U.S., Americans strongly disapproved 60% to 37%. This disapproval is mostly the result of a fear, inspired by high profile and misrepresentative tragedies, that rationality and resolve must quell.

The civil war in Syria is a tragic, complicated event that requires a multilateral solution, but it has also provided a great opportunity for the U.S. to reassert itself as a humanitarian leader. Canada, which has a population one-tenth as large as the U.S., has already taken over 25,000 refugees without issue. The UK, a populace one-fifth that of the U.S., is planning on taking 20,000 over the next five years. Germany welcomed over 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in 2015. Jordan, with its mere 6.5 million population size has taken over 600,000 Syrian refugees. While it would be difficult for the U.S. to take as many as those countries because of our extensive screening process, we can still do better than we have been considering America’s massive relative size. Once, America turned down 908 Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939. Forced to return to Europe, about a quarter were killed in the Holocaust. Allowing history to repeat itself and being content with the paltry 10,000 refugees will damage the U.S’s reputation and weaken its position as the moral leader in the world. This will in turn weaken our justification for spreading our values and interests across the world. By aggressively enacting an agenda to safely resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees, the U.S. can simultaneously rebuild its moral reputation while undermining ISIL’s rhetoric. We currently lag behind our allies, but we can still catch up and assume the position once again as the leading country of the free world.

Are Millennials Stupid Political Beliefs Going to Cause President Trump?

Millennials really don’t like Donald Trump. If only voters under the age of 34 voted, Trump would lose by almost 20%.

But millennials could also be responsible for handing the Presidency to Trump. Why? The 20% Clinton lead referred to earlier comes with an important caveat–it’s only true in a two way race between Trump and Clinton.

A whopping 44% of millennials opt for a third party candidate when given the option. And when they do, Clinton’s lead among that age group nosedives to just 5%. As you can see from the graph below, when 18-34 year olds are given the option to support a third party, those voters by and large draw from Clinton’s total.  

While American Democracy doesn’t restrict franchise to the young, millennials are an important part of the electorate that’s driving Clinton’s recent weakness in the polls. Among all voters, Clinton has a 5% lead in a two way race but just 2% when 3rd party candidates are included. Most of that discrepancy is driven by young voters disproportionate preferences for a 3rd party candidate.

Obviously if you’re a 3rd party voter, you’re unsatisfied with the main dishes on offer in 2016. But there’s also a pretty good chance (according to polls) you prefer a Clinton presidency to Trump when forced to chose between the two. If you vote for a 3rd party, you aren’t making that preference heard.

In fact, it’s not even a vote that’s neutral between the two major party nominees. It’s a vote that actually helps Trump. Since 3rd party voters mostly prefer Clinton in a two way race, choosing a 3rd party helps Trump by disproportionately taking votes from Clinton.

Third party votes do express dissatisfaction with the major party nominees. But their actual effect is to help Trump. If votes were purely expressive, why bother having elections at all? A dictator could hold an election where his subjects express dissatisfaction with his rule, but that wouldn’t affect who’s in power. A third party vote does the same thing, expressing dissatisfaction without changing who’s in power.

Furthermore,  progressives unsatisfied with Clinton have already expressed a lot of dissatisfaction in the primaries. Despite Clinton’s huge institutional advantages, Sanders came awfully close to winning the democratic nomination. And despite his loss, Clinton’s policies were pushed significantly leftward, culminating in “by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party,” according to Sanders himself.


There are a lot of ways to actually make change to America’s political system that are far superior to simply demonstrating anger. Our splintered political system means there are a huge amount of consequential elections outside the presidential race. Already, so called “Sanders Democrats” are challenging and winning against entrenched Democratic incumbents in primaries across the country. You can find local progressive challengers in your area on sandersdemocrats.org.

If there’s no one in your local area to vote for, (and even if there is) volunteering can have much more impact than one measly vote. Research shows that presidential campaigns increase turnout by as much as 7%–a huge, election deciding effect. In local or state level elections turnout is lower and voters are more persuadable. That means the impact of a little more campaigning (phone calls, door to door canvassing), in these elections is much higher than the presidential level. Just a few hours of canvassing can easily turn out many more votes than your own meseley total of one.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of ways to make change ways to make change in a political system you’re unsatisfied with. Voting for a third party isn’t one of them.

I’ll leave you with Sanders’ own words on the merits of a third party vote this election:

“This is not the time for a protest vote, in terms of a presidential campaign. I ran as a third-party candidate. I’m the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress, okay? And if people want to run as third-party candidates, God bless them! Run for Congress. Run for governor. Run for state legislature. When we’re talking about president of the United States, in my own personal view, this is not time for a protest vote. This is time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.”


Can Nate Silver Move Markets?

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight general election model was released today. Depending on the model, he gives Hillary Clinton between 73% and 80% chance of winning in November.

I was curious to see if Silver had so much clout that his prediction would move betting markets. Despite all the attention, the answer is no:

Screenshot 2016-06-29 20.30.16


The lack of movement could be because the odds were already closely aligned with Silver’s predictions. Electionbettingodds.com, where I drew the graphic from, puts Hillary Clinton at 74% chance to win to Trump’s 22%. That is between the probabilities of the two FiveThirtyEight models.

But even if Silver’s models didn’t add any new information for bettors, there’s still reason they could move the market. In a way, Silver’s prediction* is an event in and of itself. It’s extensively covered by the media, often with references to Silver’s near perfect record of forecasting the 2008 and 2012 elections. Rather than predicting who wins, the FiveThirtyEight model could actually change who people plan to vote for if it influences their perceptions of who could win.

Political Scientists have demonstrated in numerous experiments that voters’ perceptions of who they think will win influences thier choice. People like to belong to the winning team. Giving Clinton an 80% chance of winning in November could create a self fulfilling prophecy, unintentionally influencing undecided voters and tipping the election toward Hillary.

That being said, Silver’s predictions weren’t exactly a surprise. Bettors could be considering the “Silver effect,” but already priced it in.

At the very least it seems that Silver didn’t include this possibility in his model. Maybe I’ll email him.

*It’s not really a “prediction” which is binary, but a probability based model. But go tell that to all the third party news outlets covering it.


Why We Should be More Concerned with Gun Suicides

Currently, we are seeing much discussion about increased gun control. This was spurred on by the mass shooting in Orlando. Whenever there is a mass shooting in this country, such as Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech, we see an increased call for gun control measures which are almost always defeated. These mass shootings are, without fail, highly publicized and covered by the media, which is what leads to the increased rhetoric for gun control. When there is a mass shooting, sales of guns usually increase because people believe that owning a gun will protect them from shooters. There always is this backlash to the call for more gun control.

However, while these gun control activists are well-intentioned, they often forget about where the majority of gun deaths are coming from. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010, 61% of gun deaths in the U.S. were due to suicide, whereas only 35% were due to homicide. In 2010, 19,362 people in the U.S. died from gun suicide. Decreasing the amount of suicides should be as much of a reason for gun control as decreasing the amount of homicides, if not more. Much of gun control legislation is focused on preventing homicides but is ineffective against suicides, such as limiting assault weapons. Legislation that can attack both homicides and suicides can involve improving mental health or preventing people with mental health issues from obtaining guns.


Not only are most gun deaths suicides, but most suicides are through guns. In fact it more than doubles the second most frequent method, suffocation, at 50.9% compared to 24.8%.


One might argue that people will just find other ways to commit suicide. But this argument fails for the same reason it fails against trying to prevent homicides. No one is saying that gun control would get rid of half of all suicides, but on the margins it may make a difference and save lives, especially considering that guns are far and away the most common method of suicide. Having a gun in the house sometimes plants the idea of suicide in the victims mind. We should be trying to make it harder for people with mental health issues to commit suicide, and taking away the primary method of suicide may set up a barrier for some people.

However, the underlying way to prevent both suicides and homicides is mental health and socialization. While we do need gun control, it should be the last line of defense against these acts. But these methods are rarely as discussed as gun control when there is much more we can do on these fronts.

Perhaps the reason people don’t care more about gun suicides is that people are more afraid getting shot in a mass shooting than they are of committing suicide. Most people think that they have total control over whether or not they commit suicide, and so they fear the uncontrollable chance of getting shot by a murderer in comparison. However, the chances of getting caught in a mass shooting are astronomically lower than the chances of knowing someone who commits suicide. We often have no knowledge and no control over people we know contemplating suicide. And just because one doesn’t want to commit suicide today does not mean he or she will never want to do so. Probably most suicide victims did not always want to be.

The fact is that this lack of attention paid to suicide is founded in emotion, not rationality. Mainstream media likes to report mass shootings because they generate views and are shocking, and it’s good that people know about them. But we cannot allow ourselves to ignore the suicides in this country. We shouldn’t only talk about gun control when there is a mass shooting, but we should constantly be trying to solve this issue. These pushes for legislation frequently fail, as we’ve seen most recently with Paul Ryan refusing to put gun control legislation up for a vote. If suicide gun deaths were more well-known, arguments for gun control would be stronger as there would be more potential lives saved. We must also attack the root causes of homicides and suicides, which is a failure in socialization or mental health, and not be overly preoccupied with peripheral preventative measures such as gun control.

Gun Violence in Black and White

Gun Violence in Black and White

The rate of gun homicides has declined dramatically in the last 20 years. Here we observe this:

gun violence  urban gun

Vox author German Lopez dissects the typical liberal reaction to mass shootings, after the tragedy that recently occurred at UCLA. While Democratic voters are undoubtedly acting in good faith in wanting stricter gun laws right after mass shootings, these incidents represent about 1% of gun deaths. Two articles that I came across address how privilege renders many Americans numb to the stark reality of black victims of gun violence. The black-white gap in gun deaths is simply astounding as the statistics for the type of deaths are in reverse:


The data shows that 77% of white gun deaths are suicides, but 82% of black gun deaths are homicides. Black people are 13% of the population, but are over half the victims of gun homicide.  How could this public health crisis that has sparked such moral outrage remain for so long? And more daringly, why does discussion about gun control appear to be centered around white victims when black victims are a disproportionate share? (This is not to say white lives don’t matter, and no offense was intended as this is not what I’m implying)

There are several explanations, one of which seems to be the most obvious. White people are the majority, which I consider a fair reason. (To an extent) But more unfortunately, “black on black crime” is seen as an inner-city issue regarding culture. The famous line is often invoked by conservatives to counter arguments about racial inequality. As countless authors have demonstrated, it is a myth that black people don’t care about crime in their communities.

I think other answers, such as the perception of black gun violence being more complicated are more plausible. As evidenced by conservatives’ insincere use of “black on black crime”, talking about problems in the black community is difficult. Besides the explanations of poverty, unemployment, and general lack of opportunities, space maybe the best explanation. The combination of poverty and unemployment in a densely populated area (specifically urban) sounds like a recipe for disaster. The “culture of violence” theory posited by conservatives is broken down by research regarding income, unemployment, and geography.

Continue reading “Gun Violence in Black and White”