Four reasons why Alaska bucked the national midterm turnout trend
Bucking the national trend of an increase in turnout in the 2018 midterms, Alaska came in dead last among all 50 states for the net increase in turnout in 2018 over 2014. It was one of only two states that actually had a net decline in voter turnout when comparing those two cycles.
I saw this data point from an interesting thread by Bloomberg which used some data illustrations to demonstrate the generally leftward and historic shift in turnout in the 2018 midterms.
Alaska was an anomaly in this regard. Certainly, nationwide the trend was that the increase in turnout correlated to an increase in Democratic support. So, one can argue that the diminished turnout this year in Alaska had more to do with dynamics on the left rather than the other way around – though I recognize there are good arguments why that may not be the case. The impact from Donald Trump (positive and negative on the right) and the Kavanaugh hearings (largely a positive force for Republican turnout) could both impact turnout on the right.
So, your guess as to why is as good as mine, but I think there may be a few elements that could have played into this trend. And, I think they mostly have to do with how the Democratic voters of 2018 compared with the Democratic voters of 2014 in Alaska.
1. The collapse of the Walker-Mallott/Davidson ticket may well have depressed turnout among Walker’s voters. Certainly some of them still showed up to vote, but to the extent that some of his draw was among true independent voters, those voters may not have felt they had a natural candidate among the two generally partisan final candidates. They turned out in 2014, but may not have made it in 2018 given the strange collapse at the end.
2. There wasn’t a Democrat running statewide that consolidated the Democratic vote. This was needed for a “blue wave” to form. While Mark Begich is a solid Democrat, the three-way gubernatorial race with Walker probably split some of the enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Some were Walker voters and some were certainly Begich. Along with that split in the gov race, there wasn’t a US Senate race or a Congressional race that mobilized significant support (outside of some last minute buzz in the House race). So, there was no Democrat for a coordinated campaign effort by the party to drive turnout that could build throughout the year – as happened with Begich v. Stevens in 2008, for example – and which might get funded via national dollars.
3. On the other hand, 2014 had that in Alaska. That year, Dan Sullivan was taking on Mark Begich for the US Senate. In that race, the left had their consolidated effort around which they could unify – and for which significant national money was spent to drive turnout efforts. The Parnell v Walker race probably supported that to a degree too as the anti-Parnell/anti-Republican votes had another motivating race. Moreover, that year also saw initiatives to de-criminalize marijuana, to raise the minimum wage, and to limit mining that might be harmful to salmon. So, the left had a number of issues to get excited about in 2014, thus increasing Alaska’s denominator in this statistical measurement.
4. It’s possible the state is moving rightward, and this wave just missed it. I think this hypothesis is worth stating for discussion. Perhaps there has been a rightward shift in Alaska among voters that diminished some of the enthusiasm – for whatever reason – for voters to turnout on the left. Maybe some of the folks leaving the state because of the recession were Democratic voters, or maybe those falling out of the ranks of the employed were otherwise active voters in 2014 but weren’t in 2018. Honestly, I don’t really think these hold water, particularly compared to the trends I mention above. But, I can see someone making the argument that this is the case, so I’ll posit the hypothesis, even if I find it somewhat uninspiring.
In all, these four elements may partially explain why Alaska was such an anomaly for state turnout in 2018. If that is the case, then it probably supports a general hypothesis many Alaska political observers hold: for Democrats to win statewide in Alaska, it takes a strong candidate, strong in-state context, and reason for significant funds to come in nationally, primarily in support of a strong Democrat for US Senate.
Take away any one of those three legs of the stool, and a Democrat will have mountain likely too high to climb to win a statewide Alaska race.