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Alaska: Future Swing State?

The state where President 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.

There are reasons to think that Alaska could continue to become more competitive in the coming years.

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.)

Of the remaining voters in the state, far more were Republicans (37 percent) than Democrats (20 percent), meaning that a Republican candidate will ordinarily have a clear advantage if the independent vote is split about evenly. 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.

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, from which 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.

On cultural issues, Alaska already resembles other Pacific Coast states in certain respects. Only about half of Alaska’s adults say that religion is an important part of their everyday lives, which is among the lowest rates in the country (and similar to those in Washington and Oregon).

On economic affairs, Alaska is considerably more conservative. And Democrats will encounter some friction in the state so long as they are perceived as opposing the interests of the oil and natural gas industries, which are essential to the economy there.

If the Democratic nominee in 2016 is someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton, who embraces a relatively traditional Democratic agenda, she will have better places to compete.

But a Democrat who was perceived as being of the center-left or the libertarian left, especially one from a western state like Colorado’s governor, John W. Hickenlooper, could conceivably be competitive in Alaska. And if Alaska continues to add population from states like California and Washington, it could be competitive on a more regular basis in 2020 and going forward.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.