Wasilla's Population Puzzle

Even after a few days to mull over John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, I can't shake one nagging ...
by | September 2, 2008

Even after a few days to mull over John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, I can't shake one nagging question: What, exactly, is the population of Wasilla?

As you probably know by now, Wasilla is the town where Palin served as mayor for two terms. No two media outlets seem to agree on how many people live there.

From the Los Angeles Times  (all of the emphasis is mine):

Critics continue to question why McCain, after months of assailing Democratic nominee Barack Obama as lacking foreign policy experience, would tap a running mate who has been governor for less than two years and before that was mayor of Wasilla, population 7,000.

From the Chicago Tribune :

In Palin, 44, the veteran McCain, 72, has paired up with someone who has been governor for just two years, preceded by two terms as mayor of Wasilla, population 9,780.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer :

Before winning an improbable campaign for governor 22 months ago, she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population about 8,000.

From the Charlotte Observer :

Previously she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 5,470.

Three of these four newspapers must have erred on this basic point, right? Yes and no.

Wasilla is a fast-growing suburb of Anchorage in the Mat-Su region of Alaska. So, all of these newspapers are talking about different years, without making that clear.

According to the 2000 Census, Wasilla's population was 5,469 -- that's where the 5,470 figure comes from, do to some gratuitous rounding. The Census Bureau also produces annual population estimates (see row 150 for Wasilla). By 2003, Wasilla was up to 6,977, which is presumably the origins of 7,000. By 2005, the population was over 8,000. In 2007, it hit 9,780. That's the most recent figure available and, therefore, the right number to use if you're talking about the current population of Wasilla.

Since these papers are writing about Palin's experience, however, they may want to use population figures that date from her time as mayor. Palin was elected mayor in 1996. She was term-limited in 2002. It wouldn't be accurate to say that Palin governed a town of 9,780.

Wasilla mayoral elections take place in October. I imagine -- though I don't know for sure -- that the mayor is sworn in that year. I'd be surprised if they wait all the way until January, especially given that Alaska governors are elected in November and take office in December.

So, at its biggest, how big was Wasilla when Palin was in charge? The 2002 Census estimate put its population at 6,311. Until this very moment, no media outlet (so far as I can tell) has used the 6,311 figure.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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