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How minorities and families are reshaping Alaska politics

As Alaska has grown more racially diverse over the last three decades, voting patterns have become less conservative. Both trends have been strongest in Anchorage.

In addition, a dramatic leftward shift shows up in polling data among people with children. Most students in Anchorage public schools are not white.

In 1980, 16 percent of Anchorage residents were nonwhite. By 2014, that number had reached 40 percent, according to data provided by Eddie Hunsinger of the Alaska Department of Labor.

Over the same 34-year period, the city has gone from being slightly more conservative than Alaska as a whole to being more liberal, as shown in the results of presidential elections.

In addition to the demographic changes, pollster Ivan Moore found ideological changes in his Alaska Survey, reported last month, which used identical methods over 25 surveys spanning six years to ask residents if they identified themselves as progressive, moderate or conservative. The conservative group steadily shrank.

I asked Moore to dig into his data to find out how political philosophy changed. His results showed that older residents had remained stable, but Alaskans with children changed dramatically. In 2010, half said they were conservative. Today, only a third do. Half are now moderate and the remainder are progressive.

"What political issues are related to children that might be causing this drop in people being conservative?" Moore said. "I think it's climate change."

I'm not sure that's the reason, and Moore agrees he is speculating about the cause. But it is clear that Alaska is changing.

Moore's data confirms others' findings that people of color tend to be less conservative than whites. And the nonwhite people who answered his surveys moved from the conservative to the moderate category like other groups.

But Moore's surveys don't capture the increase in racial minority numbers, because he intentionally keeps the demographics in his polls the same each time.

I looked at election and census information to draw that picture.

Votes for Democratic presidential candidates have crept upward in Alaska since the 1980s, when President Reagan's opponents got less than 30 percent, both times. In 2012, President Obama got 41 percent in Alaska, the best of any Democrat since Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

Alaska remains a deeply red state and Democratic candidates for president won't be looking here for electoral votes. But we're not as red as we used to be. Obama's percent of the Alaska vote in 2012 trailed his national vote percentage by the smallest amount of any Democrat since 1988.

And Anchorage, where minority numbers have increased fastest, has also seen more rapid political change — from red to purple — compared to the state as a whole. In Anchorage, Obama got 44 percent, better than he did statewide. By comparison, Walter Mondale got 27 percent in Anchorage in 1984, and that was lower than Alaska as a whole.

The demographic change fills in the picture. Mondale got crushed fairly uniformly all over the city. But Obama won in a third of the city's election districts, all in areas with high minority populations. In Mountain View, which is 73 percent people of color, Obama got 62 percent of the vote in 2012.

Republican consultant Matt Larkin of Dittman Research agreed that the increasing diversity of Anchorage is making the city less conservative in elections. But he said the picture is also more complex.

His surveys don't show the same trend away from conservatism as Moore's do (Moore says that could be because of using different methods). And Larkin noted that the Alaska Republican Party has gained registered members faster than the Democrats over the six years of Moore's survey. The Republicans picked up an additional 1.3 percent of the electorate, while the Democrats lost the same amount.

Moore responded, "It's weird, isn't it, because you would expect it to go the other way, unless the Republicans are just doing a better job of signing people up."

An argument could be made either way about election results. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan defeated Democrat Mark Begich in 2014, but Gov. Bill Walker won with a unity ticket over Republican Sean Parnell the same year, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski fended off a challenge from the right in 2010 with a write-in campaign.

In Anchorage, voters elected Democrat Ethan Berkowitz as mayor in 2015 and installed a solidly liberal Assembly. They have consistently approved park bonds and similar measures in recent elections after routinely defeating spending for amenities in past decades.

Larkin pointed out that the West Anchorage Assembly district seems to have become a safe seat for liberals, which wasn't true just a decade ago. But essentially the same area elected Republican Mia Costello to the state Senate in 2014.

Politics is complicated but I think we're seeing a real trend.

It makes sense that the increasing minority population would change Alaska's electorate. But the acceptance of legalized marijuana and LGBT rights came much faster than any demographic shift. That rapidity reflects the fast ideological migration in Moore's survey. People are changing their minds on important issues.

It would take more research to find out why. But the importance of families may be a clue. Here's my theory.

Alaska politics are geographic. Rural and Southeast Alaska tend to be liberal. Mat-Su, the Kenai Peninsula and most of Fairbanks are conservative. Excluding conservative Eagle River, Anchorage is in the middle.

Most current legislative leaders are from the most conservative parts of the state. And the right-wing agenda often doesn't reflect young families' needs.

Folks with kids think about the future. They need good schools, public safety and a clean and stable environment. As legislative leaders have moved further right, they have talked more about fiscal austerity, natural resources and social causes, not simple family needs.

I can imagine the phone ringing at a family dinner table. A mother who just heard news about cuts to education or the state troopers takes the call and tells Moore's poll taker that she is now moderate instead of conservative.

And then she returns to the table and serves another portion of rice noodles.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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