1996 Election in Alaska
University of Alaska, Anchorage
Alaska has voted for Republican candidates in every presidential election since 1960, with the single exception of Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964. Therefore, it would normally be safe to assume that the Republican candidate will once again win Alaska's 3 electoral votes in 1996. However, several things about the divisions within the electorate, the number of potential candidates and their attractiveness to the voters, and the particular issues confronting the state at this time make that an unsafe bet.
One major factor is that Alaska voters are only weakly identified with political parties, and tend to vote for the candidate rather than the party. In 1992, according to the Alaska Division of Elections, approximately 54 percent of the electorate was registered as either No Party or Independent. Alaska does not require that voters register with a party, but only that they state what their preference among several alternatives is. Paradoxically, Alaska also has several minor parties competing on a regular basis in state-wide elections. Registration among these parties varies, apparently depending on the candidate running at any given time. These parties do have an impact on elections in Alaska. In the 1994 election, Democrat Tony Knowles won the governor's office with significantly less that 50 percent of the total vote, confronting a field of 3 other candidates. In 1990, Alaska Independence Party candidate and former governor Walter Hickel re-claimed the office with about 39 percent of the vote which was spread among 5 candidates.
The weak identification with political parties in the Alaska electorate might be influenced by several factors. Native Americans comprise nearly 15 percent of the total population in Alaska, a higher percentage than in any other state. Parties have traditionally not appeared as important to Alaska Native voters as have other factors. Alaska also has the most in and out migration of any state, according to one of its leading political scientists. This results in participation by disproportionate numbers of new arrivals and in an increasing exit from participation by the longer term residents who are more familiar with local and state personalities and issues. The size of the state and the isolation of its population into regions, and in rural Alaska into villages, has led to competition within the parties based on regionalism rather than statewide competition between them--further increasing the tendency to support individual candidates rather than party platforms. Alaska was heavily influenced by the reform tradition in the U.S. and the desire to insulate government from the "corruption" of politics, resulting in, among other things, non-partisan local elections and a "blanket" primary which lists all candidates for each office. Thus, Alaska voters are encouraged to focus on individual candidates rather than on party platforms. Finally, the historical relationships between the federal government, outside groups and interests on the one hand, and Alaska government, individuals and groups on the other have provided fertile ground for the emergence of candidates and ideas that at times appear to include the whole political spectrum.
Influenced in part by the blanket primary, Alaska is one of the states which does not have a presidential preferential primary, relying instead on the convention process as a means of determining to which candidate delegates to the national convention will be commited. Usually both the Republican and Democratic parties have held their precinct caucuses, the first stage in the convention process, in late March or early April, followed by legislative district conventions in mid-to-late April and the state convention in late April or early May. This year the Republican Party of Alaska initiated a change in their process, and held their precinct caucuses in January. The change was for the purposes of attracting the major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination to the state (which seldom occurs,) to become a major factor in the early stages of the presidential election season (a la New Hampshire,) and, by attracting media attention to the precinct caucuses choice of candidates, to bring money into the state. The only major candidates to appear were Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes, while Elizabeth Dole represented her husband.
A brief examination of the history of precinct caucus voting in Alaska leads to the conclusion that Pat Buchanan's victory in the 96 caucus voting was no surprise. The Republican caucuses have a recent history of voting for religious conservative candidates, which the Democratic caucuses have supported more liberal candidates. In the 1988 presidential election year, the Republican caucuses supported Pat Robertson and the Democratic caucuses supported Jesse Jackson. Because each party's caucuses are usually attended by only the most active of party members, their extremism is not surprising, nor is the fact that the state conventions that year commited themselves to George Bush for the Republican nomination, and Michael Dukakis for the Democratic nomination.
The Republican party has attempted to increase the accountability of Republican elected officials to the party, and coincidently to lay the groundwork for a preferential primary in the state, by circumventing the blanket primary which has characterized Alaska's electoral system (with interruptions) since 1947. At its state convention in 1990, the Republican Party rules were amended to allow only registered Republicans, registered Independents, and those who state no party preference to vote in the Republican primary election. After an unsuccessful state challenge to the new rule in district court, two ballots were issued in the 1992 primary election, one for the Republican candidates and one listing all other candidates. This "closed" primary, which in reality was/is known as an open primary in other states, proved to be very controversial among the electorate, most elected officials (including the state's congressional delegation,) and even among rank and file members of the Republican party. This controversy has resulted in an Alaska Supreme Court decision earlier this year that the blanket primary does not violate the freedom of association of the Republican party, and the 1996 primary will once again feature only one ballot issued to all voters.
The attempt to increase the accountability of Republican elected officials to the party was based on two aspects of Alaska politics of some importance here. First, there is a history of coalitions forming the leadership organization of the state legislature, and thus party agendas have not been the primary motivation behind legislative actions. Second, three major factions have formed within the Republican party statewide that mirror such divisions in the national party to some extent, and have altered the direction of the party in Alaska. The factions consist of "old-guard" Republicans and two groups of "Christian" Republicans. One faction of the latter group is known as the "Prevo Conservatives", and is considered by party activists to be moderate on issues with the exception of abortion rights. A more militant faction of "Christian Conservatives" is made up of followers of the older Moral Majority and supporters of Pat Robertson. Robertson's victory in the 1988 precinct caucuses was due to the efforts of the Christian Republicans to capture control of the Republican Party through the precinct caucuses. However, at the state convention that year, the party's endorsement of Bush was due in large part to the support of the Prevo Conservatives, which in turn created the split between that faction and the Christian Conservatives. It was also at this point that the major split between the old guard and the Christian Republicans developed, a split focussed on the issue of abortion and the gubernatorial campaign of a "liberal" Republican woman. While the Christian Republicans did control the party's statewide machinery for a short period, the friction between its two factions led to the election of a more moderate slate of officers in 1992. The consequences of these struggles for control of the party have included the dimished influence of the party on elections, because the effort for control has precluded efforts to raise funds to support the party and its candidates. Efforts to attract new party members (in part through the Republican primary) have not contributed to the strength of the party, because the new (Christian Conservatives) do not participate beyond the precinct and state convention levels. Control over the ability to establish Republican party policy at the state level is being exercised by a minority of the registered Republican voters in the state. An additional consequence of this is the almost exclusive focus of the Republican party on the urban areas of the state. The major region supporting Republican candidates is Southcentral, which includes Anchorage and over one-half the population of the state. The result is that, with some exceptions such as the congressional delegation, Republican candidates for statewide office seldom direct their energies and resources to the bush.
There are two state-wide races of importance in addition to the presidential race: Alaska's senior U.S. Senator Ted Stevens is seeking his 5th term in the Senate, and Alaska's sole member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Don Young is seeking re-election. Both are Republicans, as is the remaining member of the delegation, Senator Frank Murkowski.
Senator Stevens has raised a substantial amount of money for his campaign, more than usual by all accounts. The positions he has taken with regard to loging on the Tongass National Forest, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, guaranteeing Community Development Quotas (CDQs) for western Alaska villages to ensure their participation in major parts of the commercial fishing industry, etc., are designed to make him attractive to Alaska voters. Because most of these positions place him in opposition to either the regulatory power of the federal government agencies or to "Outside" commercial fishing interests, he tends to gather support from the majority of Alaskans, regardless of party affiliation. He has a strong base of support in the rural, bush areas of the state, and his position as the champion of military bases in urban Alaska make him attractive to urban voters as well. However, his positions on at least 2 issues have attracted competition for the 1996 election from the Christian Republican faction of the party. He has argued that the state of Alaska should resolve the current dispute about subsistence (which led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managing wildlife on federal lands, and moving toward the management of fisheries in Alaska) by amending the Alaska Constitution to make it conform to federal laws regarding subsistence. He has also not taken a position on the abortion issue that is strong enough for the Christian Conservatives. As a consequence, while he does not have a serious Democratic challenger, a more conservative candidate has appeared to challenge him in the primary election at the end of this month. His challenger has focussed on the issue of abortion, as expected, and on the fact that Stevens has been "playing politics as usual: rather than supporting the Contract with American positions advanced in 1994, ans thus as being ineffective in advancing the "Republican Revolution."
Representative Young faces no opposition in the primary election, but does have a significant Democratic opponent in the general election. Young has also raised a substantial campaign fund, and is spending at approximately 3 times the rate as Democrat Geogianna Lincoln, an Athabascan Indian from the Interior village of Rampart. Lincoln has been a member of both the Alaska House of Representatives and the Alaska Senate, and her candidacy was seen as a major challenge to the current chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. However, she has had difficulty in raising funds for the challenge, and, in what is a surprise to many political observers, suffered a blow to her further fund-raising efforts when Representative Young was endorsed by AFN earlier this month. Because of her ethnic background and the support she has enjoyed in her large, almost exclusively Alaska Native district, Lincoln has expected that an AFN endorsement would either go to her or that the organization would remain neutral.
The Democratic party in Alaska appears to be gaining strength at the statwide level, even while its share of the seats in the state legislature is dwindling. Democratic Governor Knowles won election in large part because of his endorsment by the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), a historic first-time endorsement of a gubernatorial candidate by the state-wide organization representing the Regional and Village Corporations mandated by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. This endorsement, and the get-out-the-Native-vote campaign that followed, resulted in a record turn-out in Alaska Native villages (approaching 90 percent of the registered voters in many villages,) the majority of which voted for Knowles. The Democratic party is doing considerablyic Congressional candidate Georgianna Lincoln has maintained her central campaign office in the same location as the Democratic Unified Campaign which houses all Democratic candidates for legislative office from the Anchorage bowl region.
The Democratic party has the support of a resurgent labor movement in Alaska, which, along with the Knowles inspired Native vote, provides a substantial rank and file base for the party. The actions by the Republican led congress, and by the Republican led Alaska State House and Senate, to significantly cut welfare funds, educational funds, funding for Native American and Alaska Native programs, public regulatory agencies and programs, etc., have generated substantial opposition to Republican candidates in general thoughout the state.
Third Parties continue to play a significant role in Alaska. Ross Perot captured a sizable portion of the 1992 Alaska presidential vote, and if he is the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996, he will undoubtedly repeat that accomplishment. If Lamm were to be the Reform Party standard bearer, it is doubtful that the party would do as well in this state, in large part because the electorate does not appear to be familiar with his positions. The Green Party of Alaska has nominated Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate, and because the party has gained ballot status due to its strong showing in the 1994 gubernatorial race, the Green ticket will appear on the November ballot. Neither party has matched the 39 percent of the statewide vote captured by the Alaska Independence Party in 1990, but Perot could conceivably do so given favorable circumstances. Both the Green and the Reform parties are more likely to be spoilers in the general election here, based upon the divisions within the Republican party, the general antipathy toward the Clinton Administration, and the historical voting record of the Alaska electorate. Perot will undoubtedly attract sizable numbers of Republican voters, while Nader, given his commitment to more liberal principles, is likely to attract even larger numbers of Democratic voters who are disappointed with the Clinton Administration.
What does this mean for the Republican presidential candidate in Alaska? First, because of the precinct caucus vote for Buchanan, and the candidacy of Senator Steven's challenger, Dave Cuddy, the Republican State Convention failed to make an endorsement and the delegation is going uncommited to any candidate. In reality, this means that Buchanan will have significant support at the Republican National Convention from the Alaska delegation. Assuming that Dole wins the nomination, he will face a situation very similar to that of Senator Stevens. That is, he will receive widespread support from old-guard Republicans as well as other Alaskans angered by the Clinton Administration's positions on: failing to support the opening ANWR to petroleum exploration, maintaining restrictions on logging in the National Forest of Southeast Alaska, succumbing to pressures from Canadian, Washington, and Native American interests to cut Alaska's harvests of salmon, continued regulation of water and air quality in opposition to resource development interests, etc. However, given his attempts to make the Republican party more attractive to women voters by moderating the platform concerning abortion, and his image as a compromiser while in the Senate, he will face considerable resentment from both factions of the Christian Republicans, who are supportive of Buchanan. If Dole is the Republican candidate, the Reform Party under Perot will undoubtedly be at least as successful as Perot was in 1992. However, if Buchanan were to walk out of the Republican National Convention later this month, it is likely that the potential vote for Perot would be significantly reduced by Christian Republicans supporting Buchanan instead. In the final analysis, whoever the Republican candidate happens to be, it is likely that he will be the victor in Alaska, with Ross Perot as a dark horse possibility.
The Democratic candidate, incumbent president Clinton, will be hard pressed to pull out a victory in Alaska, a fact that he undoubtedly recognizes. Like Dole, President Clinton did not make Alaska one of his campaign stops during the primary season, and is unlikely to spend the resources or the effort to do so prior to the general election. The problem for Clinton is not only the historical record of support for the Republican candidate in Alaska. Many Democrats are disappointed with the President's failure to resist the recent Welfare Reform legislation passed by Congress, and by many of his executive actions regarding both domestic and foreign policy. Given the state's dependence on revenues generated by the petroleum industry in Alaska, Clinton's refusal to support the opening of ANWR for development has disappointed many Democrats as well as Republicans. While there has seldom been an alternative available for Democratic voters, other than the Republican candidate that is, the presence of Ralph Nader's name on the ballot may change that. It is possible, but not probable at this point in the campaign, that significant numbers of Democrats will cast protest ballots in the 1996 election.
Given the mix of potential candidates, and the unique aspects of Alaska politics present this year, anything appears to be possible.