Taking Alaskans' pulse in the governor’s race
While political prognostication is best left to the experts, I always enjoy hearing what Alaska voters have to say.
With the general election about a month out, I figured people would have a lot to say about the governor’s race – so it would be a good time to go out and talk with them.
Photojournalist Will Mader and I chose three locations: the Anchorage Senior Center, the Black Cup coffee house and Golden Donuts – to get a sample of voters from various walks of life. In all, we talked with about 60 people.
I was curious about out how my very unscientific survey of the political landscape would match up with some of the recent Ivan Moore polls, which show the Republican candidate, Mike Dunleavy, with a substantial lead over Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich.
We started out at the senior center, a place where you will find some of Alaska’s most experienced voters -- people like Ruth Sheridan, who turned 100 in January. She has a half-century of casting ballots in this state and identifies as an independent voter, one who is not bound by party affiliation.
“We need to think about who is going to do the better job for all of us, not only for the wealthy and big corporations, but for the people that actually need help,” Sheridan said. “Sometimes people say they’ll do things and not be able to do them.”
For now, Sheridan is leaning towards Walker. She says Walker has demonstrated a “certain amount of integrity and a certain amount of reality.” But if Walker doesn’t appear to be electable, she may switch to Begich.
“I intend to keep listening over the next couple of weeks and see what happens,” she said.
We also found Virginia Wisemore, 81, playing cards with a group of friends. She told us she hasn’t made up her mind yet.
“I kind of like Walker. I think he’s done a pretty good job, but I like Mark Begich a lot too,” said Wisemore, who was impressed by the job Begich did as mayor. ”I think he’s just a hometown guy, and I think he cares about Alaska.”
Over in the gym, you’ll find Don Mueller, 89. He comes here often to do sit-ups on a weight machine.
He’s dissatisfied with both Walker and Begich.
“Both of them have experience, and neither has been spectacular,” Mueller said.
Although he doesn’t know much about Dunleavy, he’s leaning towards him.
“I’ve never heard that he’s got any special attributes that are going to be better than the other two,” Mueller said. “I’m kind of leaning for new blood.”
Art Elliot was across the room doing leg lifts on another piece of equipment. He’s a retired schoolteacher and one of the few seniors we came across that day who is affiliated with a party.
Elliot, who is 81, is a lifelong Democrat who says he's very loyal to Begich. He voted for his father, Nick, when he ran for the U.S. House – and became an admirer of his son, Mark, when he was the student representative on the Anchorage Assembly. Elliot says he likes his approach to politics.
“He thinks about the whole picture, and that’s important,” Elliot said.
In Midtown at the Black Cup, where it was packed with afternoon coffee drinkers, it was hard to find anyone claiming membership in a political party, except for Margaret Adams, who is 24 and studying for her doctorate in occupational therapy.
“I always like to say I’m an Alaskan Democrat, and we’re kind of a different breed,” said Adams. “I voted for Lisa Murkowski, when she was up for re-election. I think finding who is going to take care of the state best is more important than voting by party line.”
In fact Adams says she’s inclined to vote for Bill Walker, who is running as an independent. She believes Walker has a better fiscal plan than Mark Begich, although she feels more aligned with Begich on women’s rights issues.
“I find it unfortunate,” Adams said. ”It’s definitely less than ideal to have the Democratic vote split.”
Most of the people we talked to at the coffee shop said they were too busy to think about the upcoming governor’s race.
Only Bill Sigler says he’s made up his mind. He made a point of telling us he’s proud to live in Spenard and to be a member of the Libertarian Party.
“I’ll vote for Bill Toien, the Libertarian, just to encourage him,” said Sigler, who says he knows the odds are against Toien.
“Gambling is a tax on stupidity,” Sigler laughed. “But if I were feeling sporty, I would bet on Dunleavy.”
But Sigler concedes he doesn’t know much about Dunleavy.
“He’s tall. That’s supposedly good,” he said. “Tall people get elected.”
Over at Golden Donuts, we found Tony Spencer Phillips hard at work in the back of the store, rolling out dough for bear claws.
He told us he has no idea who is running for governor and doesn’t care.
“I think most of the guys that run for office are corrupt anyways,” the baker said. “I’m not big on politics.”
He says his main goal is to work hard and save up enough money to put his daughters through college.
“That’s the only thing I pay attention to is my kids,” Phillips said.
One of the customers, Derek Whittemore, was having a dad-and-daughter donut day. Thea, who is two years old, was digging into a chocolate-frosted donut.
Whittemore believes this year’s election will have far reaching impacts that will affect Thea.
“When you’re thinking 15, 20 years out, where’s she’s going be, when she’s trying to enter the work force or go to college, I think there are going to be ripple effects,” Whittemore said.
“My biggest worry is that we get a candidate who can promise a lot and not deliver a lot,” Whittemore said – in other words, have your donut and eat it too.
Whittemore also considers himself an independent voter, who frequently crosses party lines. He says fiscal responsibility is his top priority and says he likes the hard line Walker has taken on the budget, and that includes his controversial step to trim the Permanent Fund dividend.
“It hasn’t made him a lot of friends, but I think his plan to get us back on track is fiscally solid,” Whittemore said.
Across the room, Kaitlin Christiansen was having a mom-and-son donut day.
Carter, who is 3, definitely knows that chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles are his favorite, while his mom says she has no idea who to vote for.
“Usually, when it’s down to the wires, I’ll research the issues, and then go from there,” Christiansen said.
One of the issues that’s important to her is the rising cost of health care. She says her family can’t afford insurance and has been saddled with a lot of credit card debt. She’s also worries about the growing crime rate in her neighborhood.
Daryl Stephens, who was at the counter ordering an apple fritter, says the defining issue for him is the dividend.
“Touching our dividend is not something I’m fond of,” said Stevens, who says that’s the main reason why Walker won’t get his vote.
“I’m in a toss up between Dunleavy and Begich, and I’m not sure which one yet,” Stephens said. “I grew up with Begich. Dunleavy, I’m still trying to know.”
Stephens also considers himself an independent -- one of those voters who registers as either Nonpartisan or Undeclared.
Although Republicans make up the largest political party with about 140,000 voters, almost more than twice the number of Democrats, they’re not the biggest block of voters.
That distinction goes to the undeclared voters. The Alaska Division of Elections counts about 240,000 of them in its voter registration rolls and about 85,000 nonpartisans.
The distinction: Nonpartisans choose not to be affiliated with a party, while undeclared voters exercise the right not to reveal their party identity. Combined, those two groups make up about 380,000 voters, who tilt towards Republicans or Democrats, depending on the candidates and the issues in a given election year.
Once again, I want to emphasize that my conversations with voters were a random, unscientific process. But if there was a common thread, it appeared that many voters weren’t quite ready to make up their minds – while others were clearly struggling to reach a decision.
In the last Ivan Moore poll, Dunleavy had about 47 percent of the vote. Walker was in second place with 27 percent -- and Begich was in third with about 22 percent. The week before, Begich was in second place with 29 percent.
Moore says he’ll have results from another poll next week, which might give us a better sense of how the race is shaking down.
Art Hackney, a veteran political consultant for conservative candidates, predicts there will be an “October surprise” that could possibly change the game.
October surprises are typically attacks against a candidate, unleashed in the final weeks of the campaign. With so little time left before election day, it’s often hard for a candidate to combat the negative publicity.
“There is going to be an October surprise, no matter what, “ Hackney said. “It’s either going to be something that surprises people and gives them information they didn’t have -- that changes how they feel about a particular candidate. And then you wonder where those votes go.”
Moore says, based on what he’s heard in various political circles, an October surprise of some kind has been in the works for some time – one that could possibly cut into Dunleavy’s comfortable lead.
Hackney says every election year there are always things happening under the radar that could affect voter turnout and potentially throw the race in a different direction – one of the many factors that explain that saying, “Politics is Alaska’s favorite sport.”
We’ll leave you with one final thought in our efforts to get a pulse on Alaska politics. It’s only fitting that Ruth Sheridan, our Anchorage elder who has accumulated a century of wisdom, get the last word.
“Vote early and vote often,” she says. “Be sure and express yourself while you can.”
To hear Art Hackney and Ivan Moore weigh in on Alaska’s 2018 election, watch Frontiers with Rhonda McBride. Frontiers airs on KTVA Channel 11 at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14. GCI Cable Channel 907 also carries Frontiers on Sunday in two time slots: 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.