Alaska the Swing State?
Well, here’s something to sink our collective teeth into. Nate Silver, god of numbers, statistical wizard, and Grand Political Prognisticator has just written a piece on his blog at the New York Times entitled… are you ready for this…
I started. I caught my breath audibly. My brain revved furiously.
Was this a trick? Nope. All looked well, as I skimmed through at Evelyn Wood Speed Reading pace.
Silver has several interesting points.
First, he notes that Alaska showed the most improved performance for President Obama since 2008. He also rightly notes that Sarah Palin was on the ticket in 2008, which may have had something to do with that. Obama lost by 22 points in 2008, but only 14 points in 2012.
Silver didn’t go back far enough to note the interesting thing about that 2008 race. With Sarah Palin, local Alaskan Golden Girl on the ballot, the Republican ticket pulled in 60% of the vote. Well, four years earlier, with Bush-Cheney, the Republican ticket got 61%. So the Palin factor didn’t give the Republicans a bump in Alaska. They actually lost votes. Yes, I’m a little proud of us.
Here’s how it’s fallen out for the last four elections:
2000: Bush 59, Gore 28, Nader 10
2004: Bush 61, Kerry 36
2008: McCain 60, Obama 38
2012: Romney 55, Obama 41
The Democratic ticket went from 28, to 36, to 38, to 41%. I do believe that looks like what the statisticians call a “trend.”
For all the noise made by Alaska’s Tea Party crowd about our secret Muslim, Kenyan born, gun stealin’, food stamp President, the fact that he “only” lost by 14%, and broke the 40% level of support in Alaska is pretty astounding.
Until Palin got on the ticket in 2008, the Obama campaign had dozens of full-time people in Alaska, opening field offices, recruiting volunteers, and betting that the then 3-point spread between Obama and McCain that was showing in the polls might pay off. Hey – 3 electoral votes are 3 electoral votes.
But then August 29, 2008 came along and all that changed when Palin said yes without blinking. And then it changed some more with the advent of the Tea Party and its appeal to the rural libertarian bent of some Alaskans.
“There are reasons to think that Alaska could continue to become more competitive in the coming years,” Silver says.
One factor is that Alaska’s vote is quite elastic, meaning that it can shift quite a bit from year to year. In 2008, 43 percent of voters in Alaska identified themselves as independents on the exit poll, among the highest percentages in the country. (There was no exit polling in Alaska in 2012.)
It’s true that most Alaskans are Independents, and there are a few reasons for this, which Silver doesn’t detail.
1) Libertarian Bent – Alaskans are just plain independent. Nobody puts a Sourdough in a box. We don’t like labels. We don’t like organized politics. Nobody’s gonna tell us what to think. We’re so Libertarian that we don’t even want to be called Libertarians. And that’s that. Now, get off our “lawn.”
2) Stealth Democrats – The ninjas of the Alaska political world. Yes, only 20% of the population are registered Democrats, but that’s because a lot of progressives don’t want to take a bunch of crap from their crazy, right-wing relatives/coworkers/neighbors. Being judgmental falls to the Republicans in this state. You’ll seldom see a Democrat question the patriotism, or the faith of a Republican. The other side tends to be quite public with their beliefs, and very outspoken. You can hardly blame those closet Dems… er, I mean “Independents.”
3) Unequal Primaries – If you are a Republican in Alaska, you can vote on whatever primary ballot you choose. Same goes for Independents. But if you’re a Democrat? You’re stuck with a Democratic ballot. Why? Because (God love ‘em), Democrats are idiots. We’ve had the opportunity to get on equal footing so we can choose our primary ballot, but the party chooses to take the high road. It’s a great road trip after shooting ourselves in the foot. So, there are many Dems who say “screw that noise,” and register as an Independent so they can vote for the lesser of two evils, or the easier-to-beat Republican if they choose.
Reasons 2 and 3 mean that there are really more actual Democrats than the registration numbers would indicate. They’re sort of Ninja Dems… They work with you, they go to church with you, they coach your kid’s soccer team, but they keep their secret opinions in the shadows.
And there are also some Republicans stuck in that Independent category too. So, it’s mushy at best to think of them as “on the fence” independents.
But the right sort of Democrat, who wins the majority of independents, can be competitive there, and indeed some Democrats (like Alaska’s Democratic senator, Mark Begich) can win statewide office there under the right conditions.
And by the “right conditions” in Begich’s case, Silver must mean running against a 7-time convicted felon. Ted Stevens’ ethics charges were eventually thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct. We’ll never know that might have turned out of they’d done their job right. It could have gone either way.
But that’s money under the bridge, and Mark Begich wasn’t one to sit on his laurels. Recognizing his own good luck, he’s been marching to the middle since he landed in DC. There’s really not much political difference between he and Lisa Murkowski on most things. He’s more socially moderate, but has firmly declared himself a Drill Baby Dem – a Blue Dog like many in resource extracting states, making exactly the calculation Silver seems to think will work. And it very well may. We’ll get the chance to see in 2014.
Now comes the part that really made me smile.
Alaska’s population is also changing; between 2010 and 2011, Alaska had the third-highest population growth rate in the country, trailing only Texas and Utah.
Where are those new Alaskans coming from? Many are from liberal states on the West Coast. Between 2005 and 2009, about 4,300 Californians moved to Alaska per year, making it the top state for domestic emigration to Alaska. So did 4,200 residents per year from Washington and 2,200 from Oregon.
(Welcome my southern west coast Cheechakos! We’ve been waiting for you! Step right this way! Bring your friends! PLEASE! The more the merrier! That’s it… come on…)
More conservative oil-patchy Texas immigrants numbered about 2,700, which is still a lot, but as Silver states, “the new residents of Alaska are most likely considerably more liberal than the rest of the state’s population, over all.”
(Hey, potential immigrants! Have we shown you our majestic mountain ranges? Pretty nice, huh? We also invite you to enjoy our plentiful hiking trails, world-class fisheries, urban moose and magnificent aurora borealis!)
Another interesting fact Silver mentions is that surprisingly, Alaska rates as one of the least religious states in the country with only about half of adults saying that religion is an important part of their everyday lives. That may be a shock to some, but it goes to show how a small minority shrieking very loudly can seem bigger than it really is. Kind of like those puffer fish that get all bloated so other fish think they’re the bad fish on the block, and too tough to take on in a fight.
So, how will Alaska vote in 2016? 2020? 2024? It’s anyone’s guess, but it does pay to look at trends, and listen thoughtfully to someone who’s predicted outcomes with accuracy that’s more than a little uncanny.
Alaska’s not likely to go blue for Hillary Clinton perhaps, but for a western governor like Montana’s Brian Schweitzer, or Colorado’s John Hickenlooper? Just maybe. Especially if we keep welcoming that steady stream of Californians, Washingtonians, and Oregonians to the Last Frontier. Puffer fish, eat your heart out.
(Speaking of which… Did I mention the fishing, you guys?)
Can I see Alaska going blue? Well…we did vote for LBJ in 1968, but it seems like an unlikely stretch. Then again. Nate Silver is very very seldom wrong.