ANCHORAGE — Hillary Clinton winning Alaska would be one of the weirdest footnotes of the weird political year, but polls show it could happen.
The only time a Democrat has ever won Alaska’s three electoral votes was Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. No major-party nominee has campaigned in Alaska since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, the first presidential election in which Alaska voted after becoming a state.
But polls show Clinton leading Donald Trump by few points here, and political pros believe she could possibly win. While Clinton is doing no better than a typical Democrat, Trump is the wrong shade of red for Alaska.
Figuring out why provides a glimpse into the conservative political mind. If you think of Alaska as a gun-toting, oil well-loving, blue-collar state where Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 14 percentage points, you would be right. But the frictions of race, class, and economic decline that drive pro-Trump anger are absent.
Alaska is ethnically diverse, with a large and fast-growing immigrant population, but has been largely free of public race conflict for a couple of decades. Anchorage has the three most diverse high schools in the nation, according to a study by University of Alaska Anchorage sociology professor Chad Farrell.
It’s not that Anchorage has more kinds of people—apparently, all diverse American cities have about 100 first languages spoken among students in the public schools—but in Anchorage the races and ethnicities counted in the Census attend public schools together and in similar numbers.
Whites never fled. They didn’t have anywhere to go. And Anchorage’s poor community planning (because community planning was considered pinko) means that low-income Alaska Natives and African refugees live near white doctors and lawyers.
Alaska also is relatively free of class distinctions, with less income inequality than any other state. There are few 1 percenters, and the annual Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend acts as an income floor.
Trump’s economic message doesn’t resonate here. Alaska skipped the Great Recession because oil prices were high and federal spending kept flowing, accounting together for the vast majority of economic activity.
The state never had manufacturing jobs to lose. Its Republican U.S. senators support the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Exporting resources to the Pacific Rim is Alaska’s bread and butter.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski never got on board with Trump. She is the moderate soccer mom Trump has been unable to win over in the Philadelphia suburbs, or anywhere else (I know her sons played soccer because, in this small state, my son played with them). Sen. Dan Sullivan spoke up for Trump at the Republican National Convention but disavowed him after the Access Hollywood tape came out.
Sexual assault is a powerful issue here. Alaska’s rates of rape and sexual abuse are the highest in the nation. Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, lost his bid for re-election in 2014 for failing to address the problem in the Alaska National Guard.
Alaska is very conservative, but in an ideological way that leans toward libertarianism and, for a good portion of the Republican base, toward nuttiness. Murkowski wasn’t conservative enough for Republican primary voters in 2010 and was defeated by Joe Miller, whose security detail put a reporter in handcuffs at public event. Murkowski went on to beat Miller in a write-in campaign in the general election.
Alaskans do things differently. This week, a popular right-wing conspiracy theory spilled over from Alaska to Georgia, when a pair of men were arrested preparing what a country sheriff there described as a “massive amount of arsenal” to blow up a scientific antenna in rural Alaska long reputed to be capable of mind control.
Alaska’s right-wing was not impressed. A commenter on the Alaska Dispatch News website said of the Georgians’ list of weapons, “That’s more like a Black Friday shopping list than a ‘massive amount of arsenal.’”
In this political culture, third-party candidates get a fair hearing. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was polling at 18 percent in a recent Dispatch News poll. Green Party candidate Jill Stein had 6 percent.
There’s one more factor, a far-off glimmering of hope for Democrats. Alaska’s population is changing with the arrival of recent immigrants in Anchorage. Voting patterns and survey results show the changes are moving the state to the left.
That change isn’t happening quickly enough to help Clinton much—she is strongly disliked by 59 percent of Alaska voters—but Democrats start from a shallower hole these days. Obama got 44 percent in Anchorage in 2012 compared to Walter Mondale’s 27 percent in 1984. Over those years, Anchorage went from being more conservative than the state as a whole to more liberal (using liberal as a relative term). Anchorage is home to more than 40 percent of Alaska’s population.
Trump surely won’t be watching Alaska on Election Night. The state’s election results typically come in after 2 a.m. Eastern Time. But Alaska Republicans will be watching Trump.
In 1980, when President Jimmy Carter conceded the election to Ronald Reagan in the afternoon Alaska time, Democratic voters stayed home and their candidates were slaughtered at the polls. Alaska Republicans don’t seem to care much about Trump this year, but they’re hoping he can stay alive a bit later into the evening.
CORRECTION, 11/7/16, 1:50AM: An earlier version of this story misidentified the reporter handcuffed by Joe Miller’s security as Jewish. The reporter is not Jewish.