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Is Alaska becoming a presidential swing state?

Jordan Shilling
Aaron Jansen illustration

There has been a lot of buzz about the changing American political landscape. There are several articles about Texas becoming a swing state. An analysis by The Houston Chronicle explains if demographic trends continue (read: latino immigration), Texas will be competitive in 2020 and a swing state by 2024.  Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report writes that Arizona and Georgia are soon to follow.

Recently in the New York Times, Nate Silver writes Alaska could be competitive as early as 2020. He explains why:

1. Democrats are making gains in Alaska.

Silver points to recent presidential elections to illustrate how political tides are changing:

The state where Barack Obama most improved his performance from 2008 was Alaska. He lost it by “only” 14 percentage points this year, considerably less than his 22-point margin of defeat in 2008. Part of the reason is that the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was on the Republican ticket in 2008 but was not this year. That probably doesn’t explain all of the shift, however. Consider that in 2000 — also without Ms. Palin on the ballot — the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, lost Alaska by 31 points.

So, here’s the breakdown ....

2000: Gore lost by 31 points.
2004: Kerry lost by 25 points.
2008: Obama lost by 22 points.
2012: Obama lost by 14 points.

On its face, it appears Alaska is quickly becoming a blue state. Following this trajectory, Alaska should be voting Democratic in about 8-12 years. As Silver explains, the variation between 2008 and 2012 is largely due to Sarah Palin’s presence on the ticket in ’08. He rightly points out Obama’s performance in 2012 was a remarkable improvement over Gore in 2000 -- a 17-point gain in just 12 years. After two terms of G.W. and an economic downturn, it’s no surprise Obama outperformed recent Democrats.

However, you need to look further back than ten years. If anything, Gore in 2000 was an outlier. In 1988 for example, Dukakis lost to Bush Sr. in Alaska by 23 points, similar to Obama’s performance in 2008. In 1996, Clinton lost in Alaska by 17.5 percent, similar to Obama's performance this year. One could argue that Gore’s results would have been more typical had Nader not captured 10 percent of the vote in Alaska -- votes that would have otherwise gone to Gore.

2. Alaska’s vote is elastic.

Silver explains elasticity here. Basically, elasticity refers to the degree of variation from one election to the next. Elastic states have a large number of swing voters (usually not affiliated with a party) and are more responsive to changing political conditions:

Elastic states are those which have a lot of swing voters — that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate. A swing voter is very likely to be an independent voter, since registered Republicans and registered Democrats vote with their party at least 90 percent of the time in most presidential elections. The swing voter is also likely to be devoid of other characteristics that are very strong predictors of voting behavior. For instance, he is unlikely to be African-American, which very strongly predicts Democratic voting. And she is unlikely to be a Southern evangelical, which very strongly predicts Republican voting, at least recently.

Alaska currently has 506,434 voters. Here’s the breakdown:

Non-Partisan/Unaffiliated (53%)
Republican (27.1%)
Democratic (14.4%)
Alaska Independence (3%)
Libertarian (1%)

Fifty-three percent of Alaskans have no party. On its face, this large bloc of independent voters appears to put Alaska squarely in the purple. The major problem with this assumption is equating unaffiliated/non-partisan voters with “swing voters.” They are not the same thing. The myth of the independent voter has been much discussed. Forty percent of Americans claim to be "independent." The Washington Post distills it down to this:

About a third are indistinguishable from Democrats, and three in 10 are indistinguishable from Republicans, at least when it comes to their voting patterns. Those who are both genuinely independent and active participants in the political process constitute only a sliver of the overall electorate — about 5 percent, according to the new survey.

Even if non-partisan/unaffiliated voters were split evenly between conservatives and liberals (even though they’re not), Republicans would still have a 54 percent to 41 percent advantage in 2012. Through personal experience, Alaska’s non-partisan/unaffiliated voters skew conservative as well.

Elasticity says nothing about a state’s level of partisanship. A state can be solidly partisan while still being elastic. Silver’s elasticity model has Alaska ranked 6th. (Other elastic states? Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii, and Vermont ... all quite partisan.) Analyzing “likely voters” instead of all registered voters skews the results even more conservative, especially in non-presidential years. Alaska is not becoming increasing or decreasing in partisanship either. Independent voters have made up 53 percent of the electorate going back to 1995 (as far back as statistics are recorded on the DOE website). Silver goes on to say:

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.

If by “right conditions” you mean a guilty verdict nine days before an election ... agreed. Even so, Begich only won by 1% amidst a nationwide Democratic surge.

3. Liberals are migrating to Alaska.

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. Texas, where about 2,700 people emigrated to Alaska each year, also ranked high on the list, perhaps in part because of each state’s ties to the fossil fuels industry (along with Texas’ large population). But the new residents of Alaska are most likely considerably more liberal than the rest of the state’s population, over all.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of population turnover in the nation. Depending on the source, between 5 and 7 percent of Alaska’s population enters or leaves the state each year. Indeed, only 39 percent of Alaska’s residents were born in Alaska, so the other 61 percent have to come from somewhere. The American Community Survey cited by Silver, is a voluntary survey based on a very small sample of the population and has very large margins of error (1,000+ people for California alone). A more reliable way to measure migration is through IRS-Based Migration Data and PFD-Based Migration Data. Both sources provide a more accurate picture of Alaska migration.

Migration into Alaska (2000-2010) = 282,229

From states Obama won = 162,439

From states Romney won = 119,790

1. Washington = 28,042

2. California = 26,737

3. Texas = 22,660

Silver is correct that California, Washington, and Texas contribute most to Alaska’s population, but he has incorrect numbers for California and overstates Oregon’s role. More importantly, Silver fails to take into consideration migration leaving Alaska:

Migration out of Alaska (2000-2010) = 293,196

To states Obama won = 169,574

To states Romney won = 123,622

1. Washington = 34,946

2. California = 24,350

3. Texas = 23,816

According to the data, there are actually more people leaving for blue states than people arriving from blue states. Military servicemen and their families continue to bring a steady source of generally-conservative voters to Alaska, but their turnout is significantly lower than the state average. For example, turnout in Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson #2 was 14 percent compared to 53 percent elsewhere in the district. Similarly, Eielson Air Force Base was 17 percent compared to 53 percent for surrounding areas.

Making predictions based on the origin of domestic migrants does not make sense. Silver makes no mention of age, ethnicity, or education level of those migrating to and from Alaska. And yet he says, “but the new residents of Alaska are most likely considerably more liberal than the rest of the state’s population, over all.”

Hmmm. I’m going to assume domestic migration will continue to play a negligible role in Alaska politics.

Conclusion

With no serious demographic change on the horizon, I do not think Alaska will be competitive by 2020. Aside from presidential politics, other statewide offices have similar Republican histories. Since 1990, there have been eight years of Democratic governorship and 12 years Republican. Senator Begich notwithstanding, the entire congressional delegation has been Republican since 1980. Don Young appears safe for the remainder of his career, and Begich will face stiff competition in 2014.

Jordan Shilling is a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and maintains the Alaska Psephology blog at alaskatargeting.com, where the preceding commentary first appeared.

The views expressed above are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.