Alaska, largely considered to be a blood-red state for the majority of its statehood, is likely to see a very interesting, and perhaps competitive election year come 2020. In just nine months, this state will see Three major elections; electing a member to its at-large house district, electing a senator, and casting its three electoral votes to a presidential candidate. Taking a brief look into this state’s political history, we can make out a few patterns. As far as presidential elections go, this state has proven to be reliably Republican; Since 1960, the first presidential election in which Alaska participated, it voted for the Democratic candidate only once, in 1964. The state’s history of electing Senators and House members, however, is a bit more mixed. Four out of the eight Senators elected by Alaskans have been Democrats, the most recent being Mark Begich, who served from 2009 to 2015. In the House, two out of four elected members have been Democrats, the most recently elected being Congressman Nick Begich, who served from 1971 to 1972.
Going over the political geography of the state, a few things immediately stand out. Unlike most other states, many of Alaska’s population centers, most notably Fairbanks and Anchorage, tend to favor Republicans. For example, in 2016 President Trump won the Anchorage county equivalent by 5 points and the Southeast Fairbanks county equivalent by over 50 points. In more rural areas of the state, however, Trump’s margins fell sharply, resulting in him losing many of these precincts to Democrat Hillary Clinton. In the Northwest Arctic county equivalent, for example, located in the rural western coastline of Alaska, Democrat Hillary Clinton won by a staggering 27 points over the President. Both of these patterns are starkly contrasted by the rest of the country, where Republicans dominate in rural areas, leaving the urban centers to be won handily by Democrats. This unusual trend may be explained by the larger-than-usual Native American population in the less-populated parts of the state, swaying the vote in the favor of Democrats.
Having won Alaska by 14 points in 2016, President Trump is likely to win the state’s three electoral votes again in 2020. According to the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and my own HGN Forecasting, this state is considered to be “Safe” or “Solid” Republican. In a Zogby Analytics poll conducted between July 22nd through August 9th, President Trump leads every Democrat by an average margin of 12 points. The Senatorial election is also expected to favor the Republican candidate, Dan Sullivan, over his Democratic challenger. Between Dan Sullivan’s relatively high approval rating (currently at +10 according to Morning Consult), and the R+15 partisan lean of the state, a Democratic upset here would be unlikely, albeit not impossible.
In the upcoming House election, though, things are expected to get a bit closer. Although there hasn’t been any polling data released for this at-large district yet, we can assume through Republican Incumbent Don Young’s weaker-than-usual 6.6% margin of victory in 2018 that his 2020 prospects are anything but assured. Alaska tends to be a very fickle state politically, and is more easily swayed by the national political environment than most other states, according to fivethirtyeight’s elasticity score rankings. If the Democrats maintain a commanding lead in the generic ballot, they may very well be able to unseat this 24-term congressman under the right circumstances. Don Young seems to be disproportionately impacted by the state’s elasticity, or political volatility, due to his less-than-ideal approval rating. According to Alaska Survey Research, Young’s net approval rating circa 2016 has fallen drastically since December of 2010, which may make him more vulnerable than other Alaskan statewide Republicans in 2020.
Another thing to note about Alaskan politics is the history of strong third-party showings in statewide races. Former Governor Bill Walker, for example, ran as a nonpartisan candidate in 2014 and won by a margin of just under two points. In the 2016 Senate election, Senator Murkowski won with a plurality of the vote against a crowded field of third-party and independent candidates. The Democratic candidate at the time, Ray Metcalfe, ended up in fourth place after the votes were tallied. Finishing after Murkowski, who won 44.5% of the vote, was Libertarian candidate Joe Miller, who won a whopping 29.2% of the vote. For context, Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate, won just over 3% of the vote. Margaret Stock, who ran as an Independent candidate, won over much of the traditionally Democratic vote, allowing for her to collect 13% of the vote by the end of the night. Even in the 2018 US House election for Alaska’s at-large district, Republican Don Young ran against Alyse Galvin, a left-leaning independent rather than a Democrat, who ended up winning 46% of the vote.
All in all, Alaska is among the most politically baffling states in the union. Its unusual urban/rural political divide, impressive track record for third-party performance, and relatively limited history in major statewide elections (only dating as far back as 1960) all make for an interesting and unpredictable political scene. So, when the 2020 election comes around, be sure to spare some attention to Alaska, as it is likely to produce some interesting results, and maybe even a new member of congress