Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

Do glaciers have an influence on voting patterns in America? In this year’s unusual presidential campaign, analysts have examined many factors, such as age, gender, race, education or other demographic characteristics. But looking at the proximity to glaciers also merits consideration.

Last weekend’s caucuses in Wyoming suggest an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, much as the results from Washington state did last month. As the third most glaciated state in the US, after Alaska and Washington, Wyoming seems like a promising site to examine this possibility.

Because Wyoming has not yet released the complete tallies of voters in the caucuses, we are basing our analysis on the numbers of delegates from each county to the state Democratic convention, which are publicly available. The proportion of delegates for each candidate from each county is based on the proportion of voters in that county’s caucus who supported that candidate, so we can infer the voting patterns in each county from the numbers of delegates chosen there.

Using this information, we find that Sanders scored two percentage points higher on average in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state.

Sanders performed well in Wyoming overall, receiving 55.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Washington at 72.7 percent, Colorado at 58.9 percent, and Alaska at 81.6 percent). As we’ve noted, 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 relationship between glaciers and support for Sanders.

County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Teton and Absaroka indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)
County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Absraoka and Teton indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Wyoming. We focused on the state’s three most glaciated mountain ranges, the Wind River Range (55.8 square kilometers of glaciers), the Absaroka Mountains (9.6 square kilometers) and the Teton Range (6.9 square kilometers)  since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

We used this information to establish a set of four glacier counties (Sublette and Fremont, which lie on either side of the Wind River Range, Park for the Absaroka Mountains, and Teton for its eponymous range).  We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 19 counties in the state.

(source: Politico)
(source: Politico)

As the table included here shows, the glacier counties went more strongly for Sanders. These glacier counties gave him 57.7 percent of their delegate total, above the state average of 55.7 percent. Indeed, three of these four counties—Sublette, Park and Teton—chose 60 percent or more of their delegates for Sanders, placing them in the top third of the state’s counties for the proportion of Sanders delegates.

There was one glacier county in Wyoming where Sanders didn’t do better than he did on average across the state: Fremont County was one of the eight counties in which Sanders and Clinton were tied. Sheer geographical reasons might account for the relative weakness of this possible  glacier effect in Fremont County, since it is the largest of the counties, stretching furthest from the mountains and most extensively into the plains region in the eastern portion of the state. Moreover, it lacks the major national parks (Yellowstone in Park County, Grand Teton in Teton County) that could underscore the importance of the iconic white peaks. And other local factors may be at play. Laura Hancock, a reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune, described the county as follows in an email interview:  

Fremont County has two dynamics going on. It has the Wind River Reservation, home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Leadership from both tribes endorsed Clinton. Bill Clinton has had a relationship with them since the 1990s. But the small city of Lander is also in Fremont County. Lander is at the base of the Wind River Range. It has a number of businesses and organizations in the town that are conservation-minded – the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wyoming Outdoor Council are the ones off the top of my head. Whenever I go to Lander and hang out it seems like there are a lot of young, white men – Bernie’s core group, I think. Granted, those organizations both employ women. I know women who work at both of those places. But generally speaking, Lander is sort of this town where there are a lot of people are drawn, a lot of people who love the outdoors and are so young, they may have been born during Bill Clinton’s second term and don’t really know who he is. So Sanders is inspiring them and the Clintons are these people from the vague past.

The association between glaciers and support for Sanders in the three counties might reflect factors other than the presence of glaciers. The three glacier counties that supported Sanders, taken as a set, have a higher proportion of white residents (92.6 percent), a demographic that has supported him, than the state overall (90.7 percent), while the proportion of white residents in Fremont County is only 74.3 percent. The tendency of urban voters to support Clinton may also be reflected in the fact that Fremont County has Riverton, the largest town in the four glacier counties. Clinton also performed well in the state’s two largest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, giving her a majority in the counties, Cheyenne and Natrona, in which they are located.


Idiosyncratic factors in these counties may also have influenced voting patterns in these counties. A Reddit user  commented that the Democrats in Sublette County supported Sanders because of their opposition to the extensive oil and gas operations there. Also, the strong turnout of young voters in the Park County caucus may have helped Sanders there.  

In an email to GlacierHub, Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, mentioned the influx into Teton County of people from out of state, including celebrities like Harrison Ford and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who are drawn by its scenic beauty. She said, “One thing to know about Jackson Hole and Teton County is that though they are geographically located in Wyoming, they are really part of California/the West Coast in spirit–and, to a great extent, in demographics and political orientation as well.” 

It would be interesting to examine voting patterns community by community, rather than at the county level, but such information is not available for Wyoming. The Democratic Party in Wyoming, recognizing that their party has barely one-fifth of the registered voters in the state, decided to hold only one caucus per county, unlike the more numerous Republicans, who set up several caucuses in the more populous counties, allowing for finer-grained analysis of their voting patterns.

Caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in the coming months in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. The results from these elections may shed light on this possible association between glaciers and voting patterns. In the meantime, Sanders supporters took pleasure that the glacier-rich state of Wyoming extended their candidate’s run of strong performances. His victory in that state was his eighth in the last nine contests— and his fourth victory in a state with glaciers.

Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

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 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.

(source: Washington State Democrats)
(source: Washington State Democrats)

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.