Behind the numbers: Alaska: Where did Joe Miller win? 

How did insurgent Republican candidate Joe Miller pile up a majority—at least of the 98% of votes counted so far—against incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowsk?

I thought I’d look at the returns by legislative district to see.

The following table shows the current reported margin for Miller or Murkowski in popular votes in each of several groupings of legislative districts. The total may not add up to the latest reported statewide number as absentee and mail ballots are counted, but it will be close and give a reasonable idea of the magnitude of support in each area.

Since the legislative districts had equal populations in 2000 Census figures, the number of legislative districts in each grouping gives a reasonable idea of the size of the constituency.

Area Legislative Districts Candidate vote margin
Southern Panhandle 1-- 5 Murkowski 1,361
Fairbanks area 7 -- 11 Miller 1,543
Matanuska-Susitna (includes Wasilla) 12 -- 16 Miller 4,222
Anchorage 17-31 Murkowski 2,470
Kenai-Homer-Kodiak 32--36 Miller 1,101
Bush (Alaska native majority 6, 37-40 Murkowski 1,367
Total 1--40 Miller 1,668

Miller’s biggest lead comes from the Matanuska-Susitna area, which includes Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla. There’s a tendency to assume that Palin’s endorsement is responsible for this support. But I suspect other factors played a role.

This is the fastest-growing part of Alaska. It’s essentially an exurban area: most people here live within an hour’s drive of Anchorage and even closer to the big military bases just north of the city. Anchorage is hemmed in by water (the Knik Arm) and the formidable Chugash Mountains; the area around Palmer and Wasilla is a relatively flat and expansive valley, with Alaska’s only farmland and with plenty of land to accommodate newcomers.

For more on Alaska and this part of the state, check out this article by Vaughn Ververs, who actually lived in Wasilla for five years.

In other states, exurban areas have often been the most heavily Republican constituency in many elections in recent years, and so it has been in Alaska. It’s logical that voters here, even more than in Miller’s home town of Fairbanks, would be attuned to his anti-Washington, anti-incumbent message.

Murkowski has been portrayed as the choice of Alaska’s Republican establishment, such as it is. And she did carry Anchorage. But considering that the city includes 15 of the state’s 40 legislative districts, she must have been disappointed by her small margin. Similarly, she carried the Panhandle, including the state capital of Juneau and Ketchikan, the political base for some years of her father, former Senator and Governor Frank Murkowski. But again the margin must have been disappointing. Murkowski’s constituency service probably helped her in the Bush, but most Alaska Natives usually vote Democratic, and her margin here was not impressive.

So demographics—the relatively rapid growth of the Matanuska-Susitna area—is at least as responsible as Sarah Palin for Miller’s lead. We’ll see if it holds up as the last votes are counted.

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Michael Barone

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