When I was in high school, an especially talented teacher brought the hammer down on all of us idealistic almost-voters. Our votes for president, she told us, wouldn’t count.
Easy for her to say. And not necessarily wrong. We were living in Alaska, which holds a whopping three electoral votes. And those three electoral votes are reliably Republican, just like the state. She encouraged us to participate, but when it comes to realpolitik, Alaska doesn’t make the difference. No president-elect or vice-president-elect thanks the people of Alaska on election night.
For the last 28 years, Alaska’s delegation to Washington, D.C., has been solidly Republican. The governors have been more mixed—five Republicans, five Democrats since statehood. The tie-breaker would be Wally Hickel, who was governor from 1990 to 1994, under the Alaska Independence Party banner. He breaks the tie in favor of the Republicans–after all, he switched to the party in 1994. Or, rather, switched back to the party–he was also one of those Republican governors, in the 1960s, until he joined the Nixon administration.
By now, you’ve probably heard of at least two of Alaska’s delegation: Don Young and Ted Stevens. They’ve run successfully on anti-change platforms. That is, you should vote for me, because I’ve been in Congress for such a long time that it would be bad for you to get rid of me. This is why Young, for example, didn’t feel to bashful about admitting, about the 2005 transportation bill, “I stuffed it like a turkey.” That bill included earmarks for the famous “bridges to nowhere” (there were two, technically, including the famous one down near Ketchikan), which the Republicans point out now-Governor Sarah Palin opposed. They don’t mention that it was a Republican’s initiative.
But Young is in a political fight to the death at this very moment. (Let’s save a discussion of Stevens for another day.) Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged the 36-year-incumbent in the primary, held Tuesday, and they’re still counting the votes. Young has a lead, but just barely: 151 votes. (I’ll write more about Young in the future. I need a real reporting budget, too–it’s a great story.)
And now Sarah Palin is John McCain’s running mate. A surprise, but hardly a shock since Palin has been mentioned as a possibility (though a long shot). She is probably a good short-term choice for McCain, but debatable in the long term. She is popular in Alaska, but Alaska only has about 670,000 people. While 60 percent of the population is independent or unaffiliated, and another quarter is Republican, it hasn’t proven to be that politically diverse at core when electing statewide or nationally in recent years. Compared to bigger, more diverse states like Texas or California, or even medium-sized states like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it’s kind of like saying she’s popular in high school.*
She ends up undermining much of McCain’s campaign so far, namely the experience argument. Even though the Republicans can point to her executive experience, once the dust settles, it will be clear that she’s only been governor of Alaska for about a year and a half, and her prior experience is limited, potentially negligible. If she’d been an early candidate for president, she would have been severely criticized if not ridiculed for her presumption to the office. And Obama’s people will focus on her glaring weaknesses while pointing out that executive experience is no guarantee–after all, George W. Bush was a two-term governor of Texas, and a two-term president, and how often do we hear anyone singing his praise anymore?
There are a lot of other Republican women who have longer résumés (including active governors and senators), and from that perspective, choosing Palin is particularly surprising. But she brings advantages. One is that she doesn’t really have a record to run from, though that brings a slim record to point to.
But choosing her also has an effect that Karl Rove would be proud of. The Palin selection is Rove’s base strategy at work–appealing to and drawing out the conservative base, which helped re-elect Bush in 2004. Remember George W. Bush’s perhaps unintentional acknowledgment of the strategy after the election, when he pledged to “reach out to everyone who shares our goals.”
Alaska has a strong libertarian streak (with a paradoxical dose of federal entitlement), which helped Palin’s anti-corruption, anti-waste campaign for governor. All state politicians have to balance that libertarianism with their personal conservatism or liberalism, which means it’s often subverted. It’s clear that Palin’s conservatism will be deployed strategically: evangelical, anti-abortion, promotes teaching creationism in school, grew up around hunting and guns,* etc. Just like, say, Mike Huckabee. But choosing Palin more easily qualifies as historic.
So what does Alaska have to do with any of this? Almost nothing, at this point. Energy and global warming are the obvious issues, and it will be interesting to watch Palin attempt to shut down Biden on these points in debate. But Alaska, like Delaware, doesn’t figure into any key electoral equations. My teacher is still right, and this election won’t be won and lost there.
Plus, if Palin goes to Washington along with Sean Parnell, and they stick to their fiscal guns (the Club for Growth loves them), then Alaska actually stands to lose money. Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without that steady influx of federal cash.
No, it seems that Alaska’s unique role in today’s decision is that it’s a small state that allows people to make big impressions. Where else can a person come, seemingly, out of nowhere, to make a political name for herself? It’s unlikely, beating a machine, subverting the hierarchies, jumping to the head of the line. Doing that sounds impossible in California or Texas or New York. Except that Barack Obama seems to have done just that with the nation, and, with the Palin pick, McCain apparently sees that kind of dynamism as a key to success. And if it does the trick for McCain, then, for the first time, somebody will remember Alaska on election night.
*In fairness, Delaware only has about 850,000 people. And I do like Alaska–after all, I went to high school there and my family lives there still.
**I grew up around hunting and guns, too. Something like that is not necessarily a conservative attribute, but is boiled down to useful keywords in elections.