A progressive’s guide to the AK special RCV general

Progressives are weighing whether or not to rank a Republican second during the ranked-choice general.

It’s official: the special ranked choice general election to fill Don Young’s term will feature three candidates rather than four.

On Saturday, June 25th, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling deciding that Tara Sweeney would not be bumped into the 4th place slot.

The lawsuit responds to the withdrawal independent candidate Al Gross, who unexpectedly withdrew from the general after safely placing 3rd in the June 16th primary.

That leaves Sarah Palin (R), Nick Begich (R), and Mary Peltola (D) on the general ballot. Voters will be able to rank the three in order of their preference for them. With Gross out of the race, progressives are weighing whether to rank Palin or Begich 2nd — or either of them at all.

Some have even asked if there’s an element of strategy involved.

In my view, strategic voting during the RCV general is a futile and a risky bet. Without Al Gross or a Republican who shares some voters with Peltola (like Sweeney did), there is no need to consider strategy or game theory. Whether you vote Palin/Begich as 2nd is all about insurance — a choice between the lesser of two evils assuming Peltola doesn’t make the 2nd round of RCV.

Below is analysis on how to vote in two different scenarios. The first assumes Peltola does very well in the 1st round of voting, causing one Republican to be eliminated and creating a D vs R runoff (Peltola vs Palin OR Begich). The second scenario assumes Peltola places third and gets eliminated immediately (Palin vs Begich runoff).

Peltola is likely to place 1st/2nd during the 1st round of RCV

The debate on which conservative to rank 2nd is based on the premise that Peltola will place 3rd and be the first candidate to be eliminated from the race. Should she get eliminated first, it would leave a 2-way competition between Palin and Begich. From there, it makes sense that we’d rank whoever we dislike the least and thus prefer to send to D.C.

But a 2 vs 1 race where conservatives are splitting the vote against a sole Democrat is actually likely to put either Begich or Palin in third place.

Progressive and liberal voters tend to make up about 40-45% of the votes in a general election. Republicans normally take 55-60% of the vote. However, with two Republicans running, it will be very hard for either to beat Peltola’s 40-45% alone. Mathematically, it would require a complete blowout between Palin and Begich in which one of them receives just 10-15% of the vote. That is incredibly unlikely.

Even if Palin or Begich manage to beat Peltola’s likely threshold, its highly unlikely BOTH Republican candidates beat Peltola. That means that at least one Republican is going to get eliminated from the 1st round of voting. If that’s the case, it really doesn’t matter if you choose to rank another Republican 2nd — there won’t be a scenario where your votes get redistributed to another Republican anyways.

For example, let’s play out an RCV scenario under the assumption Peltola takes first place:

Peltola45%
Palin30%
Begich25%
1st round of voting:
Begich gets eliminated due to getting fewest votes
Palin47.8%
Peltola47.1%
2nd round of voting:
6% of Begich voters don’t rank either Palin or Peltola as their 2nd choice; 17% rank Palin 2nd and Begich’s votes transfer to her; 2% rank Peltola 2nd and those votes transfer to her

Here’s the takeaway: the final round will likely be (D) vs (R), meaning your 2nd choice vote will never get redistributed to another candidate.

If Peltola doesn’t make the 2nd round of RCV…

Let’s imagine my prediction that Peltola performs very well during the 1st round is incorrect. Perhaps Palin/Begich will do so well they earn the 1st place votes of many independents who sometimes vote Democratic but are unhappy with Biden and want a Republican to win this time. Perhaps Democrat’s stay home while Republicans turn out in droves and Peltola’s vote share dips below 35%. I think all of this is unlikely, but let’s say it happens.

In that case, you might want to rank a Republican 2nd. Assuming it will be a Palin vs Begich runoff once Peltola gets eliminated, we should at least have a say in which Republican will represent our state.

Luckily, there is no electoral downside to ranking Palin or Begich 2nd. Perhaps you can argue that since your vote will go towards a Republican it will count towards their final number of votes, which could give the appearance of conservative legitimacy to the winner. I don’t think this carries a tangible harm since we’ll know how many voters preferred a Democrat from the beginning.

Personally, I’ll be ranking Peltola 1st and Begich 2nd. I’m pretty certain Peltola will not get eliminated in the 1st round of voting, but if there’s no harm in a backup vote should I get things wrong (again), why not?

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

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.