The Big Mystery Election in Alaska

The big election mystery in Alaska? Really, just stuff about Alaska nobody from Outside cared about before November 4, 2008. Stuff – like my dockworker-artist friend, Charlotte, who voted for Ralph Nader and Ted Stevens because Stevens wrote a personal (not mechanical) note to her when her mother died and came to her mother’s birthday parties. Stevens wrote another letter when her husband’s mother died and helped her husband get his foreign birth certificate records for a needed security clearance. She thinks that all politicians lie- so “Big Whoop” (as she put it) on Ted’s felony convictions and she wonders why there is no investigation of other members of the House or Senate who use office staff to run personal errands.

Alaska stuff, like a slow mail system (Stevens got a special subsidy for rural mail) with 90,000 ballots, early and absentee, still uncounted and others trickling in from across the US until November 14 and from overseas until November 19. Stuff like most of Alaska distrusting Anchorage and its tendency to grab up everything not nailed down. Stuff like thousands of military, stationed all over the world, who are domiciled in Alaska, to collect Permanent Fund checks and vote Republican. Stuff like Bush Alaska (not- that -Bush) forced to look to Young and to Stevens for help for basics like water and sewer systems or phone and internet access, while ignored or stereotyped by their fellow urban Alaskans -except when they come to the cities to spend money.

All the polls — local and national — were wrong on all the major races (at least until 90,000 plus absentee, early and challenged ballots are counted this week). National and Alaskan commentators who have cut their teeth — so to speak — on Sarah Palin and chagrined pollsters all have tried to explain, rationalize or cast blame on the electoral process, itself.

All of a sudden what Alaska did with Palin, Stevens and Young seemed to matter. Alaska’s beleaguered progressives ( after all, “Democracy Now” airs at four in the morning) claimed “We’re not like Sarah” rallies were the largest political events in Alaska, excluding (significantly), several downtown tribal rights marches by Alaska Natives. Critics of Palin, Stevens and Young started believing their own hype and its influence on the race. Bloggers and pollsters predicted a solid Democratic sweep of the Congressional race by Ethan Berkowitz against incumbent Don Young by at least 7-9 points, a solid Democratic victory by Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich over incumbent Ted Stevens fighting and losing on federal charges by at least 7-10 percentage points and, even, a to-the-wire race for the electoral votes for now President-elect Obama over Palin and McCain (in that order), as Palin’s bipartisan facade fell under the weight of her Matalin-Corse’s Wicked Witch of the North comic book script..

And then, for the Presidential race, came what should have been either a phenomenal stroke of luck or Democratic strategy. A second Troopergate investigation by a Democratic-aligned investigator for the state personnel board completely cleared the Governor of abuse of her authority in firing her Commissioner of Public Safety. This last minute report turned black into white and night into day and was released at 4 in the afternoon on the eve of the Presidential Election. If the polls had been right, it should have triggered an overnight, reactive shift by independents just to punish Governor Palin, and, just enough, to cause an upset in the Presidential race. If the polls had been right that investigator could have written his own ticket to a Federal judgeship in the Obama administration for his brilliant decision to support Palin and for the timing of his release. If the polls were right. If the race was close. But none of this happened.

Woven together by, the polls were off by roughly 13 per cent of the vote in each case after 224,000 votes were counted. With different weightings, 28,000 voters voted the wrong way or went missing from what had been predicted.

From’s “What the Hell Happened in Alaska?” by Nate Silver.

Contest Projection Result DeltaAL-ALL Berkowitz +6.4 (i) Young +7.7 GOP +14.1AL-Sen Begich +12.9 (ii) Stevens +1.5 GOP +14.4AL-Pres McCain +13.9 (iii) McCain +25.3 GOP +12.4(i) Trend Estimate(ii) FiveThirtyEight Polling Average(iii) FiveThirtyEight Trend-Adjusted Estimate.

Before the general election and the Palin nomination, there had been a hot August primary (figuratively speaking) with some heavily publicized initiatives that proposed a ban on aerial wolf hunting ( for the third time) and a proposal to protect water and fish from the world’s largest strip mine. This last proposal drew millions of dollars in get-out-the-no vote publicity from multinational miners. The primary results offered clues to the general election, but were missed by the experts because nobody knew or cared about Palin or Alaska back then. Experts assumed the big primary turn out (193,533) predicted a huge turn-out at the general. In fact, 224,057, with 90,000 votes still being checked, were less than the 2004 election without Palin).

The mystery is why the pollsters and the experts were consistently wrong about outcomes and votes won by the Democratic side?

Here was an election with an Alaskan as vice presidential candidate and people stayed home or voted absentee. A Democratic presidential candidate actually ran TV ads in the state to the delight of local broadcasters and had an active campaign going until Palin’s nomination came along. Then the energy of Obama’s staff who hadn’t left, Alaska, shifted to writing letters and e mails to people in battleground states, telling outsiders how bad Sarah Palin really was. Thousands of Alaskan voters could have sold their votes on E-Bay, so hated was Palin. (Just kidding.) Obama’s campaign became a grassroots message from Liberal Alaskans, “Hey Mary and Joe, down below, I’m not like Sarah, I hope you know.”

I waited for the pollsters to apologize, but that’s like asking party operatives to take credit for their incompetence in the election campaign they just blew. Witness the last minute smears of the ever-available Palin by McCain boys and girls who want another shot in 2012. Hey, it worked for Carville with the Ralph Nader excuse for 2000, so why not leak lies about Africa, NAFTA or hillbillies at Nieman Marcus through Fox on the right and AlterNet on the left now that Palin’s back in Wasilla, waiting for her change to run for senate if Ted wins his race. Until I saw wall posters of Palin in Georgetown last week, spewing venom like a 50’s horror comic Hydra, I didn’t appreciate how useful she had been both to people who couldn’t find any other excuse to vote for Obama and to Republicans who needed a scapegoat outside of the beltway.

Alaska veteran pollster, Dave Dittman, first blamed the cold weather (although Alaskans know how to dress for the cold or vote absentee). So I am forced to share a dirty little secret with you about the state I love to end some of the speculation, first, about the myth of Obama’s upset, given the predicted high margin wins for his Democratic counterparts and the rallies which seemed to predict such an upset.

Alaska has a problem with race it doesn’t like to admit.

If we apply the conspiracy theories which were supposed to have blocked an Obama landslide nationally, a variant fits for Alaska — the Bradley theory for Californians or the Doug Wilder theory for Virginians. Alaskans lied to pollsters about their intent to vote the straight Democratic ticket, partly because they value their privacy — it is a written constitutional right in Alaska — and, partly, because in Alaska, they don’t vote for Brown faces.

Think of Alaska as a third world country where two hundred plus villages harbor the world’s last hunting and gathering cultures. Most urban Alaskans never visit the bush and know nothing of the rich cultures of Inuit, Yupik, Athabascan, Tsimshian or Tlingit or Haida, peoples who equal in population a percentage equal to Indians in New Mexico and actually outnumbered non-natives until World War Two. Rural Alaska started off in 1959 when Alaska became a state with enough elected representation to form an Ice Bloc (really) in the legislature. But the Supreme Court’s Baker v. Carr (one person, one vote) in 1964, and ever-increasing populations in the urban areas, wiped out that advantage. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1972 expunged pre-Alaska tribal hunting and fishing rights and the Alaska Native Corporations transformed their interests in the lands they once ruled into those of shareholders with damage to tribal sovereign governments, supposedly replaced with efficient state services delivered to these citizens of Alaska from afar. Alaska, the state, never kept its promises to these original inhabitants, now fellow citizens.

Gone now are the signs which explicitly barred Native Alaskans from restaurants, movie theaters and cafés. But the indifference to Alaska natives surfaces regularly. How else to explain that Alaska state troopers who police most of the bush could not be penetrated by the governor to extract a bad cop? Neither of the Troopergate reports motivated political leaders or the liberal media to deal with the larger question of why Alaska native villages are policed by an agency over which they have no control.

Racism is deeply institutionalized and taken for granted. The only institutions with numbers in representational excess to the Alaska Native population in the state, are the prisons. A generation of young Alaska native males is lost to their hunting cultures, to Alaska native women and to the ballot box.

In the remaining 90,000 absentee, provisional and challenged votes are some offsets to the picture which emerged on election day. Obama will gain some overseas black military votes and some Alaska native absentee votes, from Natives forced into Anchorage or Fairbanks for the winter from their villages by the energy crisis and the refusal of the legislature to make good on the historic pledge to offset the high cost of Bush fuel when compared with that of the Rail Belt, another treaty broken. Other villages forced into an energy Diaspora did not vote at home or in the cities, leading to a reduction in the anticipated overall count. Abandoned villages make the 2008 energy crisis the new 1918 influenza epidemic in its disastrous magnitude.

Obama’s 80,500 votes are very close to the 85,000 primary votes who voted against aerial wolf hunting and the 83,574 primary votes who voted for the anti-mining, pro-clean water legislation, but shorter than the standing totals for Democrat Berkowitz (97,104) or Democrat Begich (103,337).

Berkowitz had 39, 784 primary votes to Alaska Native activist Diane Benson’s 28,347. Some of those Benson voters may have stayed home in the general election. On the other hand, Young was challenged by Palin-favored and Club for Growth favorite, Sean Parnell. Young got 48,195 to Parnell’s 47, 891 in the primary, but these returned home in the general election with Young receiving 114,043 votes so far. Stevens was challenged by Banker Dave Cuddy, an arch conservative and a Stevens hater long before his trial and jury conviction. Whether those 28,364 votes for Cuddy returned to Stevens is debatable.’s analysis of Alaska polls concisely shows a gap of 13 percent between poll predictions- although the 13 percent is spread differently between the rival candidates. If voters were consistent as they moved from primary to general elections, Benson’s voters and Cuddy’s voters opted out of each general race. You could say their loyalty to Benson and Cuddy outweighed loyalty to Berkowitz and Stevens. Or some switched sides. Personalities counted for these voters.

Conservationists may have been the 80,000 strong who voted for Obama as they did for the props on banning aerial wolf hunting and against strip mining that pollutes water and fish. The 17-23,000 shortfalls in Democratic votes, the differences between Berkowitz, Begich and the presidential ticket, are the votes Palin and McCain received above those for Republican candidates Young and Stevens, Alaska split tickets based on a differing perspective on development and conservation with race, at minimum, not a positive factor for Obama from a state where race still factors into all aspects of private and public life. Maybe he should have dropped by.

Finally, Ted Stevens. His heels are dug in. He brought home essential funds for under-represented rural Alaska Natives, pulling them slowly out of third world poverty while many Democrats and Republican state administrations and legislatures were indifferent. He’ll resign (if he wins), only if he gets a presidential pardon which protects his son and those loyal to him, from a president, who in a less compromised world, would be prosecuted for more than lying on financial disclosure forms about renovations to his house.

STEVE CONN lived in Alaska from 1972 until 2007. He is a retired professor, University of Alaska. His email is