Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

Posted by on Mar 31, 2016

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You’ve heard of red states and blue states–but what about glacier states and non-glacier states?

Most political analysis focuses on voters’ age, gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. But looking at voter proximity to glaciers is also a fascinating metric. In fact, last weekend’s caucuses in Washington state point towards an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In counties with glaciers in them, Sanders scored almost three percentage points higher on average than he did on average across the entire state.

County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)

County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)

Sanders performed well in Washington state overall, receiving 72.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Colorado 58.9 percent, Alaska 81.6 percent). In fact, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relation between glaciers and support for Sanders.

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Washington. We decided to focus on the state’s three most glaciated peaks, Mt. Rainier (88 square kilometers of glaciers), Mt. Baker (49 square kilometers) and Mt. Adams (24 square kilometers), since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

These three glaciers all straddle the borders between counties. We used this information to establish a set of six glacier counties (Whatcom and Skagit at Mt. Baker, Lewis and Pierce at Mt. Rainier, Yakima and Skamania at Mt. Adams). We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 33 counties in the state.

The county-level results tabulated by the Democratic Party in Washington show that Sanders outperformed his main rival, Hillary Clinton, with particular strength in these glacier counties. The proportion of caucus participants in these counties who cast their votes for him ranged from 73.3 percent in Pierce County to 90.2 percent in Skamania County. These figures are all higher than Sanders’ lead in the state as a whole, which is 72.7 percent. Taken as a set, 75.4 percent of the caucus participants in these six glacier counties voted for him. (A two-tailed chi-square test indicates that this association is significant at the p <.01 level.)

Continuing to drill down on this question, GlacierHub examined preliminary caucus returns from one glacier county, Skagit County, the only glacier county for which these results are available, and found that they support the relationship as well. The caucuses pick delegates to upcoming county conventions, as one step in a long process that leads to the final selection of the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Candidates were awarded the proportion of delegates from a caucus that corresponds to their percentage of support at that caucus.

As shown by data provided to GlacierHub by Bob Doll, chair of the Skagit County Democrats, the votes of 3818 residents at 17 caucuses determined the allocation of 438 delegates, with 73.5 percent going to Sanders. The proportion was higher—82.4 percent—in Concrete and Rockport, the two caucus sites closest to Mt. Baker.

These findings can invite speculation of factors that could have caused them: perhaps the residents of the areas closest to glaciers are concerned about the changes in streamflow associated with glacier retreat, or its effects on tourism, in ways that might influence them to favor one candidate over another. It might be that the immediate visibility of climate change’s effects influenced their voting patterns.

To be sure, this association might not reflect any specific glacial influence. The glacier counties have a higher proportion of white residents than the state as a whole (78.9 percent vs. 77.3 percent), a population among whom Sanders is widely recognized to do well. Moreover, these are rural counties, another region that has tended to support Sanders. Or perhaps the residents of these counties might identify with Sanders as a fellow mountain resident, since his state, Vermont, is one of the most mountainous states in the country with the smallest proportion of its territory in flat areas. (In contrast, his home borough, Brooklyn, may be judged the least mountainous of New York City’s five boroughs, since it has the lowest high point, but this fact may not loom large for Washingtonians, many of whom do not have a detailed knowledge of the city’s topography.)

We may gain some insight to this relationship later this spring, when caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. In the meantime, there is at least one piece of anecdotal evidence that points to the importance of glaciers in Washington State. As the attached image shows, a Washingtonian, preparing for activity at a caucus, noticed that the state’s highest peak had emerged from the clouds which usually surround it, and paused to record the view that she saw. The words that she chose to describe this moment—playful as they may be–attribute an awareness to the mountain. Perhaps such engagements with the natural world could play a role in voting, and in other political action as well.

 

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