Blalaska — or Blue Alaska, our wonderful term for when the state of Alaska eventually begins electing Democrats — is coming.
Practically no state is moving left faster than Alaska is. Since 2000, Alaska has swung democratic in every presidential election, going from an R +30.95 state in 2000 to an R +10.05 state in 2020. During that time, only two states have moved further left — Vermont and Colorado. And, since 2008, not a single state has been coming to the Democrats faster than Alaska. It is well on its way to becoming a blue state.
But why? What’s lurking below the surface and causing this drastic shift, something that seems to go against national trends in a state as rural as Alaska?
To answer that question, we need to dive below the surface.
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Millennia ago, Indigenous peoples began arriving in Alaska, fanning out across the land and developing efficient tactics to survive the treacherous landscape. Several major groups — the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, the Athabaskans, the Aleut, the Inupiat and the Yup’ik — established a large presence in the territory, and remain a large percentage of the population in Alaska today.
This heavy native population in Alaska’s vast rural areas (it is, of course, the largest state by area in the nation) contribute heavily to its somewhat backwards politics. The rurals of Alaska are harsh and treacherous, and so settlers have greatly avoided them — save for gold-rich Interior Alaska. The population that does live in them, largely native, is comprised of voters who tend to skew Democratic — leading Alaska to some of the bluest rurals in the country.
In the early 18th century, foreigners began arriving in Alaska. The largest group were the Russians, who set up fur trading colonies in mostly coastal areas. Some groups had peaceful relations with the natives, others did not, and though unintentionally they somewhat decimated the native population with their Old World diseases. Their largest legacy stemmed from their missionary activity — Russian Orthodoxy is still a very popular religion across Alaska. However, their presence — and Alaska’s proximity to Asia in general — failed to leave much meaningful demographic presence behind today.
The British and the Spanish both explored Alaska’s south and southeastern coast, and they had some conflict along the way — almost going to war in the Nootka Crisis of 1789, where there was conflict over land and Spain seized British ships. This was resolved via treaty, after which the Spanish withdrew from Alaska, largely failing to leave behind much evidence of their time there.
In the early 19th century, Americans began expanding into what was mostly Russian Alaska. Attempts to keep them out largely failed, especially as Russia went through financial difficulties. In the hopes of keeping this territory out of the hands of the powerful British, Russia sold Alaska to the United States on August 1st, 1867, for the price of $7.2 million — or about $132 million in today’s money.
The discovery of gold in the Canadian Yukon in 1896 and the Alaskan city of Nome in 1899 caused many people to move there in their rush to profit off of this new discovery. This built up several cities in Alaska, especially Fairbanks — the largest city in Interior Alaska (more on them later). Alaska continued to grow in population, though the US forcing international shipping to run through Seattle instead of Anchorage or Juneau and the Great Depression horribly destabilized their economy. Eventually, due to pressures from a growing statehood movement, the discovery of oil in the territory, and Alaska’s strategic importance during World War II, it was admitted to the Union as a state on January 3rd, 1959.
Alaska’s largest industry quickly became oil — the most profitable oil field in the U.S. is on the North Slope. After much difficulty and many disputes with Natives, the Trans-Alaska pipeline was built — running oil from the North Slope down 800 miles of Interior Alaska to the nearest ice-free port, Valdez, on the South Coast.
With this new growth of oil came the Alaska Permanent Fund, a stipend paid from oil revenues to all permanent residents of Alaska. It was done to ensure investment in the state of Alaska, and is one of the prime examples of basic income in practice today. Its creation continued to fuel a migration into Alaska — almost entirely white people.
To this day, oil continues to dominate Alaska — leading to staunch conservatism. However, ecotourism has become a strong second industry — and that brings with it an environmentalist movement. This movement, combined with a modern decline in oil production from Alaska, is a large part of what’s fueling their swing to the left.
Alaska is a heavily male state — though the US as a whole has significantly more women than men, Alaska has almost 30,000 more men than women, comprising about 52% of their population. Outside of the city of Anchorage, men dominate practically every single part of Alaska — a rugged terrain, many men moved there to find work without their families (or, the women had the good sense to leave the frigid air behind). In fact, Alaska has the highest male-to-female ratio in the country.
About 16% of Alaska’s housing units lie vacant — and this number is much higher in areas outside of the cities. Interior and southwestern Alaska have many vacant housing units, often left behind by people leaving their childhood homes in search of work or deciding that the conditions they lived in were just too unbearable — and of course, there’s not much housing market in those places.
Somewhat surprisingly, over 30% of housing units in Alaska are rented. And while this is concentrated in Anchorage and Fairbanks, there are people renting housing all across the state of Alaska — finding markets even in the most remote places.
To sum it all up, here’s my favorite demographic map to make — one that shows diversity better than most and, though it isn’t new information, lets you see things you’d otherwise miss.
Most of Alaska’s diversity is in the rural areas — while the cities are relatively racially homogeneous, and the suburbs (or even areas outside of the immediate downtown) are even more so. This is why Alaska has what’s commonly referred to as an “inside-out” political structure — the cities, white and oil-fueled, are quite conservative, while the rurals, dominated by natives, are largely liberal. It’s the reverse of national trends, and a large part of what makes Alaska so unique.
Alaska is geographically distant from the rest of the U.S. — and politically, they are perhaps even more so. Initially a somewhat swingy state, Alaska voted just once for a Democrat — LBJ in ’64 — before becoming a completely conservative state, voting red in every presidential election since then. But despite this, they have a strongly independent streak — giving independent Ross Perot almost 30% of the vote in 1992, electing Lisa Murkowski to the Senate in 2010 off of a write-in campaign, and becoming one of the first states to enact top-4 jungle primaries and ranked choice voting just recently during the 2020 election.
On the local level, politics are even stranger — the people are so spread out and so expectant of politicians that practically anything becomes possible. An upshot Democrat took down a powerful Republican by traveling to every community in his district, majority control of the Alaska State House in 2018 was decided by a single vote, and though Republicans have held the majority of seats in their state house the entire time, their caucus has been the minority to the Democrats since 2017.
Half of the state’s population lives in its three largest cities — Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau — and over 40% of that is just in Anchorage itself. Anchorage is a port city in southcentral Alaska, initially a rail town that grew massively as a base for World War II military campaigns. Fairbanks is the largest city in Interior Alaska, also formed more or less by accident at the site of a shipwreck that was heading for gold during the rush in the early 20th century. Today, it houses the state’s founding university. Juneau, the state capital, was formerly the population center of the state. Lying in Alaska’s southeastern panhandle and surrounded by terrain mountainous enough that no roads connect it to the rest of the state, its growth has quickly slowed — and many attempts have been made, in response, to try and move the state capital to Anchorage.
The remainder of Alaska’s population is scattered. No other towns surmount 10,000 people — the closest, Sitka, is just shy of 9,000 — and Alaska is the largest state in the country. With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder Alaska’s politics are almost comical.
Anchorage is becoming more and more of a Democratic stronghold — its city council has bounced most of their Republicans in the past decade, and most of the area has shifted blue as the political playbook in Alaska is reinvented. But there are still vast areas in and around Anchorage that remain Republican, and still have voters that Democrats could pick up. Fairbanks, outside of the University itself (which only houses some 9,000 students) is staunchly Republican to this day, though the area just outside of the city is more Democratic, and again the city itself is moving left. Juneau is a long-standing Democratic stronghold, and other areas of the panhandle like Sitka are quickly joining it.
Alaska’s rurals are, once again, strange. In the northern and southwestern parts of the state, which are heavily Native, the Democrats draw support. In rural Interior Alaska and parts of southcentral Alaska, the Republicans find their last vestiges of support — the area still most resistant to shifting blue.
Coalitions are changing rapidly in Alaska — and so is the playbook for how to go about it. Once again proving Alaska’s independence from the rest of US politics, Alaska has actually begun shifting at the local level first — electing Democrats to local and state office, while continuing to elect Republicans federally. Democrats are learning new methods of winning elections: undertaking difficult canvassing efforts in remote, rural communities, painting themselves as true, rugged Alaskans, adopting economic populist ideas and breaking from party lines on issues such as gun control. And it’s working.
Though we could look at countless statewide races to analyze Alaska’s blue trend, we’re going to focus on presidential contests — the most prominent, highest turnout, and least affected by dynastic family politics. Though Alaska has elected Democrats to other statewide offices more recently — the Senate as recently as the 2008 election, and Governor in 1998 — the Presidential trend is a better reflection of the true statewide partisanship.
Before I start showing you maps, a quick disclaimer — some of the precincts are missing data or slightly funky, since precincts changed from 2008 to 2020, but as a whole the data are almost entirely correct and broader trends are depicted correctly.
Since 2000, Alaska has swung democratic in every presidential election, going from an R +30.95 state in 2000 to an R +10.05 state in 2020. During that time, only two states have moved further left — Vermont and Colorado. And, since 2008, not a single state has been coming to the Democrats faster than Alaska.
Democrats bottomed out in Alaska during the 2000 election — where George W. Bush won by a 31% margin, as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader snagged over 10% of the vote (remember Alaska’s independent streak?) and Al Gore sank to a measly 27.7% of the vote as a result.
Then it started moving left. In 2008, despite incumbent Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin serving as the Vice President on John McCain’s ticket, Obama improved the margin — getting it back below 25% for the first time since 1992, when Ross Perot took 28% of the vote.
Though there had been some shift from the thrashing Democrats took in the 2000 election, this is still clearly a map of a Republican +25 win. Democratic strength was lurking in the rurals and growing in the Panhandle and around Anchorage, but it still wasn’t enough to surpass the incredible strength Republicans held in the state.
But by 2016, this was very quickly changing. New shifts towards the Democrats, largely from the Anchorage area but also from Fairbanks, the Panhandle, and the Native rurals brought the margin back under 15 points.
Oil was in decline in Alaska, and ecotourism was on the rise. The absence of Sarah Palin also helped the Dems — but it’s important that we keep that in context, since Democrats improved from 2004–2008 in spite of the fact that Palin appeared on the ticket. Democrats had done lots of work beneath the surface, gaining many local and state seats and establishing a much greater infrastructure for flipping and turning out their voters.
In 2020, the Democrats came even further — coming only 0.06% away from taking their margin below 10% for the first time (excluding 1992, which was upended by Ross Perot) since 1968. They were aided by a universal voter registration bill, which registered everybody who applied for the Alaska Permanent Fund to vote.
Though there’s not much merit to measuring the swing between two back-to-back elections, especially two that feature an incumbent — let alone one as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump — Alaska came nearly five points left between the two elections, and so there’s something to be seen here.
Biden’s falls in Native rurals are of little concern here — they’re likely to revert. Trump won many interesting new coalitions in 2020 that he hadn’t found before, much of which stemmed from his personality and the Biden campaign’s prioritization of white, working class voters instead of focusing on voters of color.
To put these trends into a much bigger context, let’s look at the swing from 2008. Democrats gained over 10% in their margin in those twelve years, part of a trend dating back to 2000 and aided by incredible canvassing and political upheaval efforts below the surface. And if that same exact swing were added on over the next twelve years, Alaska would flip blue.
Remember how I said that no state has moved left faster than Alaska over the past twelve years?
On a map, that looks remarkable.
I’m sure there are parts of this trend that I’m missing — I’m just one person, who isn’t from Alaska, and I don’t know everything about the state. But I can say for sure that the decline of oil, rise of ecotourism and restructuring of the political playbook in Alaska are fueling large parts of their swing left, and it’s working to an incredible degree.
It’s not just one part of the state that’s moving left. There aren’t parts of the state that are going Republican, to offset the gains being made by Democrats. Every single part of Alaska is moving to the left. It’s already changed beneath the surface in local and state elections. And before long, Alaska will become a Democratic stronghold.
Blalaska is coming.
Except for the map labeling the regions, all twenty of the maps in this story were made by me, using data from the Harvard VEST Team and the United States Census Bureau. Sources came mostly from Wikipedia, with other sources used linked throughout the article. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more large mapping projects coming soon!