I took mild issue with Nate Silver on Twitter yesterday about his article "Alaska: Future Swing State?" I said it was "proof that Silver is better with numbers than analysis."
Ted Cuzillo (@datadoodle) asked what I’d have said if I was his editor and promised him more than 140 characters in reply. Here goes:
First, I’m a longtime Nate Silver fan. We were practicing data-driven journalism in Alaska in the 1980s (check this Time Magazine piece). I made myself look smart in 2008 by paying attention to him earlier than most folks, was one of the few who recognized him before his first talk at the TED Active gathering a year later, and I won bets based on his projections this year. (I’m retired now and Margaret Sullivan can’t tell me who to bet with).
My complaint with his Alaska post boils down to this: it has the feel of something written quickly to meet a deadline without much thought. It takes a couple of interesting facts—Obama lost Alaska by less in 2012 than 2008, and many of its immigrants come from states far bluer than Alaska—and spins them into a conclusion that doesn’t make sense even with its classic question mark headline. It’s a nice contrararian twist, but nobody I know who follows Alaska politics gives it much credence.
Of course, future is a big word, so I won’t argue Alaska won’t be a swing state sometime in the future. But I will argue that it won’t be soon. I’d be willing to bet Texas is in play before that.
I grew up in Anchorage and practiced journalism there for 25 years. Much of that time the state really was in play, electing a moderate and environmentalist Republican governor over a gung-ho developer and turning the State House into a frat party filled with dissident, under-30 Democrats. But those days are long gone.
I was in Juneau the weekend McCain named her to the ticket and talked for days with Alaska politicos about the stunning news. I was back for two weeks this year in April on a book tour (Write Hard, Die Free, since you asked) and heard from folks from Fairbanks to Juneau about where Alaska is heading.
The truth is, the current governor is far more conservative and pro-oil than Sarah Palin, though perhaps not as nutty. (Hard to tell; his nickname is Capt. Zero). He’s worked tirelessly to return billions of tax dollars collected from oil companies, thwarted only by a bipartisan coalition controlling the State Senate.
As of the last election, that coalition is gone. Voters sent pure, pro-oil Republicans to Juneau instead.
I’ve argued Alaska has become a classic oil colony, at least as enthralled as Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, and there’s voter behavior continues to demonstrate that. The fact that oil revenues fund an endowment paying Alaskans $1,000-2,000 per person each year looms over the state’s political landscape like Denali.
Nate’s most persuasive arugment is really just an undeveloped notion: that because many immigrants come from more liberal states (California and Washington mainly) those new arrivals will probably make the state more liberal. But that assumes facts not in evidence, namely that the people who leave California for Alaska are as liberal as the people who stay in the sunshine. Could they instead be people for whom California has become too liberal, refugees from the welfare state?
I don’t know. Neither does Nate.
Anyhow, this is much more ado than the subject deserves. I didn’t intend to make a big deal out of it. But I promised to expand on my snap Twitter opinion, and now I have.