Campus & Community

Daniel Ho hits the road for joint degree

7 min read

In a back-and-forth affair with Harvard and Yale, Ho marries law and politics

Daniel Ho has completed a joint political science and law degree program at Harvard and Yale. For Ho, the question was never what he wanted to do with his life, but how to do all the things that interested him. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

In the past three years, Daniel E. Ho has had three homes: one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one in New Haven, Connecticut, and a virtual third on the road. “We’ve come to call this the ‘Amtrak Degree,’” says Ho’s dissertation advisor, Gary King, the David Florence Professor of Government. “He’s in a joint political science and law degree program at Harvard and Yale; it can seem like the commute claims as many hours as we do.”

For some students, those hours quickly add up; such treks can eat up entire days, even months of valuable work time over the course of a year. But for Ho, the road simply offered him another place to think. This June, after a blistering two and a half years of study, he will earn his political science Ph.D. – an undertaking that most of the department’s graduate students stretch over six to eight years. When he receives his diploma, Ho will have just turned 26.

For Ho, the question was never what he wanted to do with his life, but how to do all the things that interested him. Born in Sandhausen, Germany, a small town outside of Heidelberg, Ho became an acute observer of culture from a very young age. “I grew up as 50 percent of the Asian population at my German school,” he says, chuckling. “My sister was the other 50 percent.” Ho’s family hails from Hong Kong, but he and his sister grew up as German citizens, surprising their compatriots whenever they opened their mouths. His family moved to England for a year when he was 4, where he traded his native German for a thick cockney accent (which he lost immediately upon their return to Germany), and his parents often spoke Cantonese at home. “I suppose I speak ‘kitchen Cantonese,’” says Ho. “I can fluently chop vegetables and take out the trash.”

Ho’s family moved to Canada when he was 11, and then to San Diego when he was a teenager. “It was impossible not to be curious about politics,” he says. “I always felt like I was trying to figure out how each new culture worked.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Ho found a natural home in the political science department, but also developed a keen interest in law. When he discovered the possibility of a joint graduate degree program, he knew he had found his path. After graduating as both the valedictorian and a Phi Beta Kappa in 2000 from Berkeley, Ho began his law degree at Yale the following fall. He completed one full year of law school, then came to Harvard to begin his graduate degree in political science. This past December, he wrapped up his dissertation on causality in political science and law – which won the department’s top honors – and returned to spend the spring semester back at Yale, where he will earn his law degree in May of next year.

“On a personal level, splitting my time hasn’t been easy,” says Ho, recounting some of the horrors of annual apartment searches, and the difficulty of making friends, and then having to leave them behind at each school. “You associate your love for a place with the people you meet there, and all my first-year law school friends have already graduated.”

But intellectually, he says, his choice continually delivers rewards. “Each discipline forces you to think about the same subjects in very different ways,” he explains. “Political science asks ‘What are the social forces that lead to policy,’ whereas law asks ‘How should we interpret those policies when social forces test them?’ It’s exciting to be able to address them from both points of view.”

Ho has spent most of his career at Harvard at a place called “Seabreeze,” a cheerfully misnamed yellow clapboard house on Kirkland Street. Officially known as the Center for Basic Research in Social Sciences, the landlocked building earned its nickname from its abbreviation, CBRSS. Ho’s attic office, a small room crammed with six other desks, computers, and piles of papers, tops an impossibly steep and narrow staircase; it is clearly a place for the young and motivated. Part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the center fosters interdisciplinary, collaborative research, with the ultimate goal of developing techniques that can be applied to real-world problems. Ho’s work, for instance, centers on political methodology, a subfield of political science that invents and adapts statistical methods to study political behavior.

“A lot of public policy decisions ultimately come down to a person’s prior beliefs,” explains Ho. “But there are ways to look at these questions more specifically, to apply statistical methods to the fields of law and social science.” For example, one of Ho’s recent papers, co-authored with fellow graduate student Kosuke Imai, examines the longstanding question of whether the name order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes. People tend to be biased toward the first person listed on the ballot, Ho explains, but it is not necessarily because the name appears first. In many cases, for instance, the first person listed on a ballot might be an incumbent, and that may be a reason that candidate garners more votes.

“One day last year, during the chaos of the California recall election, I got a phone call from Dan,” recalls Imai, who was then in his hectic first year as an assistant professor at Princeton University. “He had read in the newspaper that California randomized all the candidates’ names on the ballots, and he thought it would be a great opportunity to analyze causality – the effect of one thing on another.”

Imai thought the idea was terrific, but worried it could not be done in the time frame Ho proposed. “Dan wanted to finish the paper by the end of the fall semester, before he left for Yale,” says Imai. “He is so hardworking, he is such a pleasure to work with, and the idea was so good – I just couldn’t turn him down.”

“Normally, this kind of paper could be a whole dissertation,” says King, “but Kosuke and Dan gathered 25 years of election statistics, designed innovative statistical methods, wrote computer programs to analyze and present the data, and produced a paper in three months as a side project.”

Ho takes on these tasks because he is earnestly and overwhelmingly interested in research, says King. “He had an exciting idea while reading the newspaper, and came up with a great experiment no one else even thought of.”

The study, which is now under review for publication, found that randomizing names in primary elections can indeed change their outcome; in fact, Ho and Imai’s analysis of statewide elections from 1978 to 2002 reveals that ballot order might have changed the winner in twelve percent of all primary races.

“There are real policy suggestions here,” says King. The whole purpose of democracy is to ensure that the candidates chosen reflect voter preferences, he explains. If instead, the election outcome stems from administrative decisions about whose name appeared first on the ballot, it would be hard to judge the election democratic. Ho and Imai’s work also presents a simple and inexpensive policy innovation, says King: They suggest randomizing the order of candidates at the precinct level, not just at the state or county level. “I expect that this innovation will actually be implemented in a variety of states, once word gets out about their results,” he says. “Having an influence of that magnitude as a result of a three-month project is something that is rare even among our faculty.”

It has been said that academia is like a conversation: You can listen for a long time before you ever make a contribution. “Dan was ready to contribute the moment he got here, and those contributions have been substantial and inspired,” says King. “Finding someone who can make contributions in statistics and can also think about these problems from a legal perspective is rare. Finding someone who can do it as well as Dan makes us sad to lose him so soon.”