The Future of Alaska Partisanship

The celebrated statistician Nate Silver recently wrote a blogpost for the New York Times called "Alaska: Future Swing State?" in which he suggested that trends over the past decade could make my homestate competitive territory for Democrats around the year 2020. Soon afterward, however, the Alaska Dispatch published a forceful rebuttal, pointing out Silver's simplifications and omissions. Now I'll take a stab at analysis and offer my own prediction of where Alaska will be politically in the year 2020 and afterward.

Like Nate Silver, I too had noted the steady upward trend in the percentage of Alaska's votes that have gone to the Democratic presidential candidate since the election in 2000. I did not know, however, that Alaska was the state where Barack Obama saw his biggest percentage growth in support from 2008 to 2012. Silver essentially cites two main reasons he thinks Alaska might become a swing state: It has a very high number of independent votes, and it has a very high population growth rate, with incoming migrants from a lot of states that vote Democratic.

image by Aaron Jansen (from here)
When it comes to independent voters, I agree with the Alaska Dispatch that the majority of independent voters still vote in pretty partisan ways. I don't think Alaska has an abnormally high number of voters who will swing back and forth between parties each election, even if it does have an abnormally high number who don't want to officially sign up as a member of a party. I, for example, am an independent voter, (technically it's "undeclared"), but my short voting record is entirely partisan. Alaska's high "elasticity"—or variation in presidential elections—probably has a lot more to do with varyingly high levels of support for third-party candidates, who Silver conveniently ignores. (Look here for a map I made on third-party voting in this election.)

The much more important factor at play is immigration. A lot of the people moving to Alaska are indeed from the blue West Coast states to our southeast, but as the Dispatch points out again, there are also a lot of people moving out of Alaska at any one time, too. Alaska has a very high turnover rate in residents—not surprising, considering the very seasonal nature of life in the Great Land, and its unique qualities that—let's face it—really aren't for everyone. Silver really isn't able to provide solid evidence that Alaska is receiving a net liberal in-migration, and Dispatch author Jordan Shilling is right to call him out for making such a simplistic conclusion using partial evidence. There is a statement Shilling makes, however, that I very much disagree with: "I’m going to assume domestic migration will continue to play a negligible role in Alaska politics."

high tide at the beach during a storm
one reason Alaska isn't for everyone
Au contraire, domestic migration has always played a huge role in Alaska politics—from 1867 onwards. The history of Alaska since it was claimed by the United States has been significantly shaped by what sorts of people chose to move there—soldiers, fishermen, prospectors, pipeline workers; New Englanders, Midwesterners, Texans; Filipinos, Polynesians, East Asians, and so on. And depending on other factors as well—like gender, education, what region of Alaska they go to, etc.—all of these groups have had different political leanings, influencing Alaska's general partisan loyalties. Now, it could be that migration in the next 8 years won't make Alaska noticeably different in its politics, but there's nothing that says that's for sure. Everyone agrees Alaska's population is growing fast, so change is not only very possible, but it's pretty much inevitable.

So, what does this mean for my own prediction on Alaska's future in the next decade? Well, I am going to make a hopeful prediction that a strong third party will rise and break up our nonsensical two-party system. This may or may not happen on a national level, but it's certainly ripe for happening in Alaska.