Top-4 special election saw highest primary turnout since 2014

In a year expected to be punishing for Dems, Republican turnout is up in Alaska

Historically, primary turnout is very low in Alaska. Between 2010-2020, an average of 24.5% of registered voters turned out to vote in Alaska’s primaries. That’s an average of 126,500 voters each election cycle.

For the special congressional primary, 161,773 Alaskans turned in a ballot — a turnout of 27.5%. That’s the highest since 2014, which saw a whopping 173,175 Alaskans turn out (35%).

Overall primary turnout is highest in 8 years

Why are 2010 and 2014 benchmarks for recent turnout? Those were high-profile years for Alaskan statewide elections, specifically the Senate. In 2010, a generally favorable year for Republicans nationwide, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) nearly lost her seat in a closed Republican primary due to widespread dissatisfaction in the party. In 2014, a terrible year for Democrats, Republicans were engaged in a very competitive 3-way primary to decide who would face the vulnerable Senator Mark Begich (D).

What explains the bump in turnout for this special election? For the first time ever, Alaska conducted an all-mail election, meaning every voter got their ballot in the mail with paid postage. Others might attribute the higher turnout to the open top-4 primary, as opposed to closed party primaries that Alaska used to conduct. We will have to see how turnout during the August 16th primaries compare, which will not be an all-mail election but will include many more races that draw voters to the polls.

(Remember: In August, we will vote on Governor, Senate, and 59 legislative races as well as both the special RCV general AND the top-4 primary for the regular primary for US House)

Conservative turnout is up, progressive turnout is down

Overall, conservative voters turn out far more than progressives for Alaska’s primaries. There are simply more conservatives in the state, despite the fact that 58% of registered voters are Undeclared or Non-Partisan. Many “independent” voters cast their ballots for Republican-leaning candidates. Thus, there is a natural turnout gap between conservative and progressive voters during primaries.

The primary turnout gap between conservative and progressive voters has always been high, but has shrunk in recent years. In the early 2010’s, conservatives were outvoting progressive 2-to-1 in primaries; in 2020, that difference was only 4,000 votes.

As you can see, the turnout gap between progressives and conservatives typically widens during non-presidential midterm years (2010-2014-2018-2022) — regardless of whether the POTUS is a Democrat or Republican.

In particular, conservatives widen the turnout gap during non-presidential midterms when the president is a Democrat. This follows a decades-long trend in which the party out of power has a significant edge during the midterms. Right now we have a razor-thin Democratic trifecta with a very unpopular president. Dissatisfaction with inflation and other qualms is driving higher conservative turnout, and progressives are largely underwhelmed by the Biden administration’s policies leading to an unenthused base. Politically, we are in an environment that is motivating an especially high turnout gap.

Despite higher turnout, conservative vote share plateaued

In comparison to analyzing turnout, vote share gives us an idea of the attitudes of the primary electorate differ year-to-year.

Note: primary voters are very, very different than the general electorate. Most voters don’t know the difference between the primary and general to begin with, and the general (November) occurs at a far more convenient time than our primaries (August). Additionally, primaries serve the purpose of vetting the candidates who will move on to the general. All of that is to say: primaries attract engaged and opinionated voters who are more likely to pay attention to politics. This is why candidates often run more ideological campaigns during the primary and then tack to the center for the general — they’re adapting to their audience.

So, knowing that primary voters tend to be more engaged and partisan voters, how has the vote share between conservative and progressive primary voters split?

Between 2010-2020, conservatives outvoted progressives in primaries by an average margin of +25%. For the 2022 special primary, that margin was 22.8%. Despite lots of conservative enthusiasm this year, progressives were able to maintain their average vote shares.

Conservative vote share tends to fall significantly during general elections where a wider array of voters come to the polls. The average conservative victory during a general election between 2010-2020 was+18%. Since 2016, conservatives are winning by much tighter margins: Dunleavy won in 2018 by a margin of +8%, and Trump won in 2020 with +10%.

The takeaway is that, on balance, conservative vote share during primaries is much higher than the November general election. This means that during the primaries, conservatives usually outvote progressives in parts of the state that usually vote for progressives and moderates.

For example, take a look at a side-by-side of the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 special congressional. For this year’s special election, I combined the vote totals of candidates that lean left/right on the political spectrum. Note that conservatives win several districts that voted for Biden because of the turnout gap:

What do primary results tell us about the general?

To some degree, primary turnout can predict heightened enthusiasm for one party over the other. In 2020, progressives turned out in record number for their primaries and went on to flip several districts that voted Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020. In the red wave year of 2010, conservatives crushed progressives in total vote share during the primaries and then led the way to sweeping victories in the general.

Additionally, progressives pulled an impressive vote share for the special primary given the red wave year this is supposed to be. As mentioned, conservatives outvoted progressives+22.8% for the special election. In comparison to other red wave years, that same margin was +45.6%in 2010 and +25% in 2014. Did a diverse set of candidates attract enough progressives to keep the vote share up? Will they show up in August to vote for Mary Peltola or vote progressive in November? It’s impossible to tell.

On the other hand, there are strong exceptions to the correlations between the primary and general. For instance, 2018 was a blue wave year for progressives across the country, but conservatives managed to maintain their average vote share. The correlation is not 100%.

View an interactive map of each House District’s winner by @cinyc9