There are a lot of theories about why politicians from New Jersey are particularly prone to corruption, now running rampant with the announcement on Wednesday that Sen. Robert Menendez (D) had been indicted. (Not that the indictment was in any way a surprise.) At the Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi offers a litany of explanations, all without using the word "Mafia" even once.
It's worth questioning the extent to which the stereotype is valid. This is harder than it might seem; there are a lot of overlapping considerations. Do we count every corrupt politician in the state's history? Only those who were indicted? Do we take into account, as Nuzzi does, that Jersey has a lot of elected officials? Do we consider the extent to which the criminal behavior of the political class reflects the criminal behavior of the state at large?
To which we decided to answer: no, sort of, yes, and yes.
We pulled data on the number of elected officials in 2012 and each state's crime rate (2013) and compared those numbers to a list of people indicted or convicted of crimes at the federal, state and local level since 2000. The source for the latter figures is Wikipedia, so it should be considered an estimate at best. But it should also be considered extracurricular reading; it's stuffed full of drugs and violence and bribery and drunkenness and all of the sorts of things that you love to hear about outside of the context of politics.
We plotted the number of criminal politicians per 1,000 in the state (at the federal, state and local levels) versus the rate of violent crime in the state per 100,000 residents. And got this.
Let's break this down. First of all, Jersey does indeed lead the pack on criminals per politician — though much of that is a function of a huge sting in 2009 that saw scores of people put in handcuffs. But: It counts, right? This is what we're here to measure.
Notice that, compared to the national averages, Jersey's politicians are more prone to crime and the citizenry less so. That's similar to Rhode Island, which has its own predilection for political impropriety. Alaska, on the other hand, is sitting way out to the right, with a crime rate that's far above average for both politicians and regular people. (Its low number of elected officials means that the few crimes they commit stand out.)
New Mexico, on the other hand, has a lot more crime from its citizenry than from its politicians. Vermont doesn't have much of either.
None of this explains why. Reading through the reasons people got busted, it's as stunning as it is diverse. Crime in politics, like crime in the rest of the world, doesn't always follow clear patterns. But it does have some favorite places to stop.