State of the States: Alaska

Alaska is red, violets are blue. Some things just are. Until they’re not. In the case of the 49th State, the only one that can make Texas look mini, I was preparing to write a quick piece about how it’s definitely in Donald Trump’s column, with a quick aside about the old election that moved Alaska from purple to red.

When I looked for the poll numbers to plug in to the second section, I was thinking there was a good chance that like Rhode Island, we’d have none. To my surprise, not only were there a few surveys, but they indicate a competitive(ish) race. FiveThirtyEight is giving Joe Biden a 20% chance at being the first Democrat to win Alaska since 1964.

How can this be?

2016 Results: Donald Trump 51.28%, Hillary Clinton 36.55%, Gary Johnson 5.88%, Write Ins 2.89%, Jill Stein 1.80%, Others 1.60% (R+17)

Here’s our first clue. While Trump won easily, and finished a full 17 points ahead of his national margin re: Hillary, he also barely cleared 50%. This wasn’t a normal outcome for him in a safe red state.

Though there are many more registered Republicans than Democrats in Alaska, over half of voters are unaffiliated. This isn’t a Republican state, it’s a right-leaning independent state. Ross Perot got 28% of the vote in 1992, finishing just behind Bill Clinton, and within 11 points of George H.W. Bush.

2020 Polls: Biden isn’t actually leading in any of these. The three from the last few months have Trump with advantages of 6, 3, and one point respectively. The newest survey is the 6, and it’s from a Democratic-affiliated pollster, though they do decent work. Based on the data, you’d still bet on Trump, it’s just more interesting than I’d have imagined.

This does show the huge difference in how Republicans feel about Trump compared to right-leaning independents. The president has bragged about his (truly) historic approval ratings within his own party. Nationally, the side-effect is having Never Trumpers leave the party and support Biden as independents. In Alaska, many were independent in the first place. It doesn’t look like Trump is losing many Alaskan supporters from 2016. It’s just that many of the Johnson/write-in voters are telling pollsters they’re for Biden.

Key Historical Shifts: There was one. And it was instant. This gets hidden because Alaska has only gone blue once, during the LBJ landslide. In that year, the state was actually D+8 as Republican Barry Goldwater managed to lose the state by 32 points. Beyond that outlier, Alaska was mostly neutral in voting for Richard Nixon three times (1960, 1968, 1972), giving him 2, 2, and 0 points of extra support.

By any reasonable standard, Alaska was a swing state for its first 4 presidential seasons. Then this:

1976: R+26

1980: R+18

1984: R+19

1988: R+15

1992: R+14

1996: R+26

2000: R+31

Alaska suddenly became the state we recognize, averaging a 21 point boost for Republicans over the next 11 elections. Even if things go very badly for Trump in November, he’ll still do at least 8 to 10 points better in Alaska than the national popular vote. Any guesses why?

The. Alaska. Pipeline.

In 1968, a stupid amount of oil was found near Prudhoe Bay, on the Alaskan North Slope. You can’t ship oil from there. The water is frozen all year. Oil companies quickly planned a several hundred mile pipeline to move the contents to a much warmer water port at Valdez, AK. They were in such a hurry that they imported hundreds of thousands of tons of steel from Japan, not wanting to wait for U.S. mills to figure out the specs.

Suddenly, they hit the wall, running in to the nascent environmental movement. Work stopped before it started. It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress passed the necessary legislation to get construction going. Said legislation was passed mostly by Republicans, over the protests of a few liberal Republicans (such a thing still existed then) and many liberal Democrats.

As soon as the independent Alaska voters discovered which party was buttering their bread, an electoral decision was made. More evidence of this link shows up in 2000, when Al Gore, the most environmentally conscious major party candidate had the worst spread (-31) between national and Alaskan results.

Perhaps Trump has injured the GOP in Alaska, but I doubt it’s terminal. If Kamala Harris beats Nikki Haley by several points there in 2024, we’ll discuss further. For now, there’s only one major shift in Alaskan presidential politics.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Results: Very simple formula. Just get the majority of the 12% of Alaskans who picked someone other than Trump or Clinton to choose him. The polls indicate this is happening. Remember, to win, Biden would need all of the third party voters, plus a few 2016 Trump voters.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Results: Even if the majority of third party voters pick Biden, Trump could still get a larger percentage of the total vote. It doesn’t look like he’s in line to win by a larger margin. Few Clinton votes will go to Trump. Few Jill Stein votes will go to Trump. Best case he gets some Gary Johnson supporters and some write-in supporters, while the remainder vote for the new Libertarian candidate or do another write-in.

Forecast: I think Trump’s ceiling is around 55% and Biden’s floor is about 42%, so it’s going to be a closer margin. If Biden wins, it’s going to be on the order of 48% to 47% with the remaining support going to third parties. It would also mean Biden had a very, very good outcome in the Lower 48.

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