How AK’s open House primary could send four conservatives to the RCV general

With low Democratic primary turnout in Alaska, progressives risk fragmenting their small voting pool — crowding them out of the RCV general election entirely.

Alaska’s open primary to fill the remainder of the late Don Young’s congressional term is about to enter full campaign mode. The 46 candidates who filed after Constant and Begich are finally posting on social media, hitting the road and meeting voters, attending forums, and racking up endorsements.

I have a lot to say about the race in general, but I’d like to focus on the effort to elect a progressive candidate by placing in the primary and winning in the general, which will utilize ranked choice voting.

For context, Alaska will hold two (2) sets of elections for a total of four (4) opportunities to vote on this single congressional race. June 11th is the special open primary where voters pick one candidate, which will send the top four into the special general election. On August 16th, voters will vote in the special general RCV election, which has voters rank the top four candidates according to their preferences. At the same time, voters will be voting in the regular open primary, in which voters will again select their top choice and advance four total candidates onto a general RCV context. Finally, on November 8th, Alaskans will vote in the general ranked choice voting election and rank the top four candidates again. Some candidates may choose to only participate in the special election, meaning the candidates will likely change between elections.

At this point, progressive support is split between four competitive candidates: Downtown Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Constant, former candidate for US Senate Al Gross, North Pole councilman and progressive Santa Claus, and former Bethel House representative Mary Peltola.

The attitude among progressives seems to be to vote your conscious, because the new election system was sold as something that empowers us to embrace our political ideals without the same problems of splitting the vote. Moreover, with so many running in the primary, people have concluded that there is no point in strategizing in a huge field where the different between candidates will be fewer votes than ever.

While well intentioned, I fear this consensus has the possibility to lead to progressives being crowded out of the primary and lead to an all-Republican ranked choice general.

I will preface by saying: I don’t think this has a super high likelihood of occurring. The following is an expression of caution given the narrow path progressives have to winning this seat. Most of what we know about how this primary will shake out is based on guesswork given the data we have about elections in Alaska. This attempt to drawn conclusions from that may not age well given the uncertainty ahead of us, but this is worth exploring anyways:

Alaska primary turnout trends favor R’s

Primaries have very, very different voters than general elections. In the past, primaries have typically been closed contests to select someone to go against the other party in a general election. The elections occur in an off-month and thus don’t attract as many voters. By nature, primaries attract folks who pay attention to politics and shaping the outcome of the general election they plan to vote in. The average primary voter is a super-voter that participates regularly and are often holds more partisan views than the average voter.

For the past decade, Republicans have far outpaced progressive turnout in primaries. 2010 and 2014 stand out, which were both red wave years that turned out Republicans in a backlash against the Obama administration. 2020 saw a spike in progressive primary turnout, perhaps due to the statewide anti-Trump wave.

2020 is likely more of an anomaly than a new norm, given a presidential year with high progressive engagement. Given the national climate, which is reasonably predicted to skew heavily in favor of Republicans, we’re probably looking at a year more similar to 2010 or 2014 where progressive turnout is down while conservative turn out a lot more.

In fact, as ballots for the June 11th special primary come in, it looks like Republican-dominated House Districts are already leading the state in turnout. Alaska mapmaking veteran @cinyc9 put together a live interactive that shades Alaska’s districts by turnout. Click the map below to view it:

There’s still a month left before the last ballot is returned, so this distribution could change. However, it’s reasonable to expect that even with vote by mail, Republicans have far stronger incentives to turn out this year. An unpopular Democrat is in office, and anger over inflation and gas prices continues to rage. Based on the national environment, Democrats aren’t going to turn out for a party they see as doing too little given the trifecta in Washington.

On average, progressive primary voters typically cast roughly 50,000 votes between 2010-2020. Republicans cast roughly 90,000 between the same period. If we project total turnout to be around 140,000 voters, we can expect progressives to make up 35% of the primary vote.

A smaller voter pool will dilute progressive voters

If progressives cast 50,000 votes in the primary, divided evenly among four competitive progressives gives each candidate 12,500 votes. For the four competitive Republicans (Begich, Sweeney, Palin, Revak), that’s 22,500 votes per candidate. With four competitive campaigns on both sides, Republicans have an advantage in the primary by having a larger voting pool and thus more power to nominate multiple conservatives in the new open primary. Thus, progressives risk not giving a single candidate enough votes to advance to the general.

Let’s put this in perspective:

For a progressive candidate to comfortably make the top four, they will probably need to win -roughly- 20,000 votes. That would put them at around 12-15% of the vote. Even then, that could be a tight fit. Progressive support seems to be genuinely split hard against all four progressives, which will make getting to a comfortable 15% difficult.

A note about polling

My analysis that Democrats are in a close contest for 4th place conflicts with a recent primary poll conducted by Ivan Moore’s Alaska Survey Research group .

Ivan Moore Alaska special congressional primary poll 2022

Without having conducted a poll myself, I don’t have better data than this. I also respect Ivan’s work a lot. However, this poll is to be taken with a truck-sized grain of salt.

Alaska is notoriously difficult, and thus inaccurate, to poll. That’s true for many reasons: our communities are less connected to the national political culture and are more disparate from one another; residential transiency (people move a lot); Alaskans don’t like answering strangers’ questions about their politics; and low population necessarily means low sample sizes. Here’s a brief look at Alaska’s recent record in polling compared to the actual outcome of the election, provided by FiveThirtyEight:

This poll is no exception to the woes of polling in Alaska: with a sample size of just over 600 people polled online, this is frankly little more than anyone’s guess at how the candidates are doing. That’s what we’re all doing.

But given the low Democratic pool of voters in an average primary, I still worry that differential Republican turnout will make it mathematically difficult for a Democrat to be “guaranteed” a slot, nevertheless two as Ivan’s poll suggests.

Can progressives coalesce to save their spot?

The single best way to stave off a split so deep that it crowds out a progressive is to coalesce behind 1-2 candidates (ideally a single campaign).

That is very unlikely to happen. A lot of far-left progressives are very excited about Santa; Constant has been campaigning for months, before Young passed away, and has raised over $100k and can reach a lot of voters; Peltola is gaining momentum from establishment progressives and voters excited about electing the first Alaska Native woman to statewide office. Even Gross will get a significant amount of votes from his name recognition alone. Progressives have opted to take their chances in a large field rather than strategize.

Ballots are already out, so it seems too late to get progressives to abandon their excitement for a free-for-all type of primary.

However, I think it’s incredibly important to pay attention to how the special open primary shakes out so we can adjust for the general. If a single progressive struggles to break through, we will need to readjust our calculus and rally around a viable candidate and encourage the one or two of the least popular progressives to drop from the regular election. Santa is unlikely to run for the general, so we know this problem will be less of an issue as the pool of progressives potentially decreases.

What’s the point of strategy if Alaska isn’t going blue anyways?

For what its worth, I think this is a winnable seat. Progressives have an uphill battle to win statewide, but this is an historic opportunity that could lead to a lot of abnormal voting behaviors in the RCV general. Candidates have a genuine chance at playing for 2nd and 3rd place votes in a way that could finally see progressives be rewarded for their reasonable politics. Furthermore, a general RCV field of three Republicans and one progressive — a situation that is most likely, in my opinion, despite my fears articulated here — will disproportionately benefit a progressive.

In a state where progressives are expected to lose at the statewide level almost no matter what, we should always run our best candidates and vie for excellence. We should be campaigning and strategizing like we’re just within reach of beating a Republican statewide; this opportunity is no exception.

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