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The Politics of the Washington Redskins Name Controversy

This week, the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark. Putting aside the moral implications of the ruling, some in media have suggested there’s an electoral angle that could benefit Democrats, who have generally been more outspoken about the issue than Republicans. (Of course, it’s possible that Democrats have been more vocal not for political gain, but because they are offended by the NFL team’s name.)

There is very little evidence the Redskins controversy will cause voters who identify as Alaska Natives, American Indians or Native Americans to cast their ballots in greater numbers for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections; issues that hit closer to home are more important to them. And there are only eight states where American Indians make up greater than 2 percent of the population: Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming. Of those states, only Alaska and Montana have remotely competitive Senate races this year.

Native American tribes, including the Blackfeet and the Sioux, make up 6 percent of Montana’s population, according to the U.S. census. And the “other” vote (most of which is Native American in Montana) was 6 percent of the electorate in 2012, going 3-1 for the U.S. Senate incumbent, Democrat Jon Tester. The “other” vote in Montana was 5 percent in 2006, the most recent midterm with a Senate election in the state before 2012.

So, Democrats have little room for improvement in terms of turnout or vote percentage in Big Sky Country. Even if this year’s Democratic candidate, incumbent John Walsh, doubled Tester’s margin with Native American voters, he’d only have expanded Tester’s overall margin by 3 percentage points. That isn’t nothing, but in recent polls, Walsh is down by more than 15 points to Republican Steve Daines.

Alaska Natives play a bigger role in their state’s elections; they make up about 15 percent of Alaska’s population. Moreover, Alaska’s 2014 Senate race is much more competitive than Montana’s. According to the federal government’s Current Population Survey, the “other” vote (mostly Alaska Native) has made up about 15 percent of eligible voters and 12 percent of actual voters, on average, in the past three midterm elections. So there is slight room for improvement in turnout, but not much.

Also, Alaska Natives, like Native Americans in Montana, already lean Democratic. In the past two Senate elections without a major third-party bid, the Democratic candidate for Senate has averaged 60 percent of the “other” vote, according to exit polls. The Republican has only pulled in an average of 34 percent. Even a doubling of that margin would give Democratic Sen. Mark Begich an extra 3 percentage points on his overall margin. That could make a difference in a close race, but who is to say that the Redskins controversy would create such a movement?

I’m unaware of any polling that shows Alaska Natives or Native Americans at large will change their vote in blocs because Democrats more forcefully support a change away from the football team’s name. The little (and admittedly old) data we have comes from the National Annenberg Election Survey in 2003 and 2004, which found that 90 percent of Native Americans did not find “Redskins” offensive. More recently, the controversy didn’t come up once in an interview Begich did with United South and Eastern Tribes.

Issues such as crime, tribal reimbursements and voting rights seem to be far more important to Alaska Natives and Native Americans at large. The candidates who are strongest on these issues are more likely to win Native Americans’ votes. It could be viewed as similar to Jewish-American voters who mostly aren’t swayed by a Republican who is more pro-Israeli than a Democrat.

Indeed, voters’ feelings on most issues don’t determine for whom they cast their ballot. The public, for example, currently sides with Democrats on many big issues, but that is unlikely help Democrats in the midterms. There is no indication that the Redskins issue will be different.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.