Ranked choice voting has arrived in Alaska.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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Today's read: 13 minutes.
In August, Alaska had one of the most surprising election results anywhere in the country.
Democrat Mary Peltola managed to prevail over two Republicans: Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. The special election was thrust onto Alaskan voters after the death of Don Young (R), the longest tenured member of the House. Peltola's win was particularly interesting, though, because it happened under Alaska's newly introduced ranked choice voting system.
Under the new system, voters cast ballots by ranking their preferred candidates. The goal is to get a candidate to 50% of the vote. When no candidate has 50% of the first place votes, the candidate with the least support is eliminated, and their second place votes are redistributed to those remaining candidates. This process repeats itself until one candidate has 50% or more of the vote and becomes the winner.
In August, Peltola finished in first place and Palin finished in second place. Begich, also a Republican, finished in third. But when he was eliminated from the race, a significant portion of his supporters either didn't fill out a second place vote or gave it to Peltola instead of Palin, handing Peltola the upset victory.
Since that was a special election to fill the seat until the end of Young's current term, the three are now set for a rematch in November for the next two-year House term.
Along with their race, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is also in an interesting showdown. Under the previous voting system, Murkowski would never have survived a closed Republican primary, where the most partisan and engaged conservative voters were ready to oust her for bucking former President Donald Trump. But under the new ranked-choice voting system, primary races are "jungle primaries," meaning candidates from both parties enter the race and the top four vote-getters advance to the general election. Murkowski finished first.
Rather than falling to her main conservative challenger Kelly Tshibaka in a primary, Murkowski heads into the general election as the favorite. With a Democratic and Libertarian candidate also in the final four, pollsters expect that Murkowski will get a big enough chunk of second place votes to pull off the victory.
Given the interesting nature of this race, I thought it would be fun to go a little deeper on it as part of our midterm coverage. So today, I sat down with Ivan Moore, one of the best known pollsters in Alaska, to talk midterms, ranked choice voting, and the issues driving Alaska voters.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Isaac Saul: I guess I've put my biases out there already as someone who supports the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) movement. I'm super interested to get your perspective on it. First, let's just start with a little bit about your background and the work you do in Alaska.
Ivan Moore: So, I'm originally from England. Your listeners will figure that out pretty quickly. I got to Alaska in 1988 and fell pretty quickly into the research business and set up my own shop in 1996, and have been doing it for 25 or 30 years.
It's been an interesting journey, one way or another. Alaska politics is kind of crazy. And I shouldn't immediately equate it with politics, because people sometimes say to me, "what do you do when it's not the political season?" As if political work is the only thing that pollsters ever do. I have just done or am soon to complete surveys on the fishing industry, on education in Alaska, on the issue of sexual assault and child abuse, and stuff like that.
So it's a very varied type of work, but it's all ultimately the process of finding out what people think about things. Which is a fascinating line of work, frankly.
Isaac Saul: I totally agree. I think it is probably one of the closest industries to what I like to think of myself as doing as a journalist or reporter or podcast host, which is just talking to people. I do it on the minute scale while you're getting all these inputs from across the state of Alaska, which is obviously very big and varied. So, I guess, let's start there.
My understanding is that ranked choice voting was implemented in Alaska and actually was a pretty tight vote. It wasn't a blow out in favor of putting the system in, I think it was something like —
Ivan Moore: 52 to 48, or whatever it was (editor's note: It passed with a total of 50.55% of the vote, a margin of just of 3,781 votes)
Isaac Saul: Yeah, close. So maybe we should start with how precisely this system in Alaska works, because ranked choice voting doesn't exist in exactly the same way everywhere. Can you tell us a little bit about what the process is like in these races and Alaska and how it's functioning right now?
Ivan Moore: Well, ordinarily speaking, if it hadn't been for the special election for Congress, we still wouldn't have done a ranked choice vote. We had the primary for the special election back in June and then August was a general, if you like, for the special election.
All the other races, the race for governor, race for the Senate, the ranked choice vote final four, won't happen until November. So we're just working up to that. But we've been through it with the special election. From Division of Elections point of view, it was a process probably to get the kinks out and to do a — you can't say practice run, because I think they were pretty focused on getting it right — it wouldn't have been good obviously from the public perspective of the process if there had been any screw-ups or uncertainties. And there weren't. It was a flawless process from the get-go.
The only thing that's kind of up in the air is my sense that the candidates haven't quite figured out how it affects their campaigning process. They're still learning and adjusting to this brave new world where you're actually fighting your primary race and your general race at the same time, and figuring out how to do that.
Isaac Saul: I guess one of the interesting elements of this that people should know is that the way it works is the goal is to get a candidate to 50% or more of the vote. And so when there's, say, a fourth-place vote-getter, that person is eliminated. And the second place votes from that person are then distributed to the rest of the candidates. And this process repeats itself until you have a victor with more than 50% of the vote.
So the really interesting thing that stuck out to me from this special election race was that Nick Begich, who was the other Republican aside from Sarah Palin running, a lot of his second-place votes did not go to Palin. And that is what helped Mary Peltola win the race. So I'm wondering from your perspective as a pollster and understanding this, what does that tell us about the voters? Is it just that Sarah Palin was that unpopular?
Ivan Moore: Well, no, it's that she's very popular amongst 30% of people, but she's very unpopular amongst 60-plus percent, right? There was a survey done in Alaska, not by us, but it came out about five or six weeks ago now, and that broke down Sarah Palin's positive-negative rating. Which amongst Democrats was one positive, 98 negative. So that shows you how her profile is certainly on that end of the spectrum.
Over on the conservative side, she's great. But her trouble was that Republicans were not of one mind with this. Let's face it, when you're Sarah Palin, hoping you come second, which she did, you've got to get Nick Begich's second place votes, right? His first place votes need to be second for Sarah Palin, and the trouble was her positive-negative amongst Nick Begich voters was 70% negative. And so there was a sense that, oh, Nick Begich is a Republican, Sarah Palin is Republican, obviously his votes are going to go to Sarah Palin, overwhelmingly.
Well, 60% did. But then people short voted as well, which basically means Nick Begich first place, and nothing else. They didn't pick a second choice, third choice, fourth choice. They just bullet voted. And 15% or 20% voted for Mary Peltola, which was how she ended up winning. And it was clear to me from the poll results of what was going to happen.
Isaac Saul: So what do we think that the rank choice voting system's impact on this race was? Does Sarah Palin win this race in a standard general election one versus one against someone like Mary Peltola?
Ivan Moore: No, I don't think she does. I think she's struggling right now in the redo, because it is basically a redo except with the addition of one extra candidate, who's the fourth place libertarian guy. But, there is 100% certainty that Libertarian guy will be the first one to be eliminated and then we'll essentially be down to the three of them, so it's actually the same dynamic. And it's basically a contest between Nick Begich and Sarah Palin to see who comes second again.
That was the contest that Sarah Palin won the first time around. But Republicans saw how that worked out for them, right? And so you'd have thought that if they were rational they'd go, "hmm, maybe we ought to try Nick Begich this time around."
But such is the support that Sarah Palin's got, which is this kind of — I hate to use the word — but kind of cultish, relatively blind ideological support for her, maybe they're not going to be rational. But we'll see. If Sarah Palin comes second again, she will lose again, you can take that to the bank. The only question as to whether Mary Peltola gets reelected is if Nick Begich comes second, there still is the very real potential that the red nature of Alaska will see him beating Peltola in the final.
But no, if Sarah Palin comes second again, she will lose again. It's guaranteed. Because it's just very difficult to win races when your negative rating is 65%. Someone should have told her that.
Isaac Saul: That's fascinating. If you're in the Republican Party, there's this element of gamesmanship there. They got this preview of the race and the special election. And I think if I'm understanding you correctly, basically the odds of Sarah Palin's second-place votes going to Nick Begich are much higher than his second-place votes going to Palin. So, if you're the Republican party and you want that seat to be a Republican seat, you should be backing him, right?
Ivan Moore: That was the dynamic before. It's a little bit more up in the air now, thanks to Sarah Palin. And this kind of goes back to the point that I made at the beginning, about how the candidates haven't quite figured out how to run a primary and general at the same time. And they also have not figured out how to do things in their best interests in the context of a ranked choice voting race.
Because as soon as August 16th [the date of the special election] went by, we had this complete barrage from Sarah Palin, about Nick Begich being a spoiler, and he should get out and he's making Mary Peltola be elected, etc. And basically ragging on Begich. And no one stopped her and said, "you realize this is the dude whose second place votes you need?"
And so we've kind of just reversed the situation where the Begich people aren't fans of Sarah Palin, and now thanks to Sarah Palin, the Sarah Palin people aren't fans of Begich. So they've kind of hurt each other. And that's what you've got to think about. And also, you've got to think about the fact that you're not just running against each other. There's this other person [Mary Peltola] if you get into the final two. So Sarah Palin has got to run against Begich, and she's also got to run against Peltola. She's got to make the case of why she's the better choice and Nick Begich has got to do that and they've given her [Peltola] a free ride from the get-go.
It's an interesting thing, I really don't believe that ranked choice voting favors one person or another, and I think in a lot of cases the outcome in a ranked choice vote would probably be unchanged from what we had before. Except that it got rid of the primary system, which is a closed, Republican primary. And the other side, by virtue of the fact that one side was closed, was also closed. And that polarizes the candidate selection in the primary. So that changes things.
But the actual process of ranked choice voting, I think it's just good public policy. It holds a runoff, so everyone's held to the standard of being the preferred candidate amongst 50%. It does it free, and it does it instantly. And it does it in a very kind of smart, progressive way that — frankly speaking — favors Republicans up here more than it favors Democrats. But the Republicans don't get it.
If you look at whether people support or oppose ranked choice voting, Republicans and conservatives hate it. There isn't any more polarizing issue between Republicans and Democrats, between conservative and progressive right now, than ranked choice. With perhaps the exception of vaccines. Republicans hate it, Democrats love it.
Isaac Saul: That's very interesting. Why do you think that is, given your assessment that it doesn't actually favor a party over another?
Ivan Moore: Well, here is why I think it potentially favors Republicans more. Historically, Republicans love the idea of runoff voting. In Alaska, we've had runoff voting in local elections, and the impetus for creating runoffs in local elections here in Anchorage was from the conservative right. You know why? Because there's more Republicans up here. There's more Republicans, there's more Republican candidates. And if there's more conservative candidates than liberal candidates, you’re more often going to get the case where two conservatives are splitting the vote. And that's what it protects against, because you don't get a situation where one liberal candidate wins with 35% and the two conservative candidates get 30 each and the liberal gets elected.
This time, one conservative gets bounced out, the majority of their votes go to the other conservative candidate and the conservative wins. You don't have the split. Republicans saw this back then, and they went, "hm, we've got to have runoffs." But they do it 30 days later at a huge cost, and you would have thought the next step from the conservatives would be, "we're conservatives, we should really save that cost and have an instant runoff instead." And just get it all done at the same time.
But they hate it because it has thrown Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) a lifeline.
That's because the Republican primary was gotten rid of. In a Republican primary, Lisa's numbers are so upside down right now with her being supported by Democrats and reviled by the conservative right, that if she were to run in a Republican primary like we had before, the chances of her winning would have been zero. Absolutely zero.
So she was toast. So ranked choice voting is seen as this boogie man that threw a lifeline to her, where really, it's nothing to do with ranked choice voting per se. That's still a good thing for Republicans.
Isaac Saul: This a good segue into my next question. I think because of the interesting dynamics of the Peltola-Palin-Begich race, that has gotten a lot of attention. But like you're saying, Murkowski was dead to rights in a normal election. So how has that played out? She survived the primary. Come November, what are we looking at? How do you view her odds?
Ivan Moore: The ranked choice voting we have here has four candidates. The top four candidates are in a jungle primary, which we already had in August.
Go forward to the ranked choice vote final.
In that final for Senate are Lisa Murkowski and the conservative challenger Kelly Tshibaka. Then, I hate to say it, a nominal Democratic candidate Patricia Chesbro. And then a second Republican who goes by the name of Buzz Kelly, who certain people think made it into the final four because people confused him with Kelly Tshibaka. Because her catchphrase, her campaign slogan is “Kelly for Alaska.” Maybe they were the low attention span voters.
Anyway, he will be eliminated first. His vote will go mostly to Tshibaka. But it's only two to three percent. And it's highly unlikely that anyone will be over 50% at that point. Then Chesbro gets eliminated, and literally 90 plus percent of her vote, the Democrat candidate, will go to Murkowski. I imagine Chesbro will get 15% of the vote. And it'll go 14 to 1 to Murkowski. And that will, I think, make Murkowski the favorite. But Tshibaka could win it. The last time I looked on PredictIt, it said Lisa Murkowski had a 78% chance to win, which I think is pretty much where it is.
Murkowski has created such a chasm of support on the conservative right, that depending on how you define that, that's 30% to 35% of the population just out the window. And it's just a matter of whether she can get enough support from the moderates through to the Democrats. And I think she will, just because Kelly Tshibaka has done much too much to ingratiate herself to the conservative right and the kind of Trumpian base. And her support just absolutely falls off a cliff once you get into the moderates.
The thing about Alaska is there's lots of moderates here. There's lots of no party people here. Party registration is lower, significantly, than the breakdown you typically see in other states, and that's a saving grace for having sensible, reasonably centrist outcomes in our elections. Which is why RCV passed in the first place.
I think what's clear about RCV is that it brings the selection process and houses it much more kind of in the middle of the spectrum.
Isaac Saul: As someone who writes and reports on national politics, I think Alaska is often spoken about and viewed in those terms that you just put it in. More moderate. Much larger center that can go either way. I know Alaska is your specialty, but I'm curious if you think there would be a similar impact from RCV if it were adopted in other states? Would we see this moderating influence?
Ivan Moore: It's still early days, but I think generally speaking, that is the likely outcome of it. But I want to be really clear here. It's nothing to do with the first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice thing.
The only reason it has the potential to select more centrist winners is because the Republican primary got ditched, and that was just a prescription for extremists on both sides. Because you basically got the conservatives over on this side, picking their candidates, and the candidates that the conservative right picks are typically not palatable beyond that 30% to 35% conservative base.
Similarly, the selection process on the other end, by virtue of the fact that the conservatives are conducting their own election over on the right, the left picks their candidates. And so you end up with one crazy flavor or the other winning. And typically speaking, because of the imbalance in voter registration in Alaska, that typically ends up being the Republican.
Isaac Saul: Obviously, at the national level, a lot of the coverage around the midterms is really focused on crime, Roe v. Wade being struck down, and inflation. What issues do you see driving the Alaska races? Is it pretty much the national standard, or do you see more local issues motivating voters right now?
Ivan Moore: It's the same mix of stuff along with a little bit of local issues. For years and years and years now, going back to the time when Ted Stevens was a U.S. Senator and Don Young was in the House, Alaska got used to having its needs looked after in D.C.
I think one of the things that is kind of built into the DNA up here is a distrust of Washington D.C. and their interests not being the same as Alaskan interests. And we looked at our congressional delegation, which was just three people (two senators and a House representative) to look after our interests. And for decades, we built a trio that had some real clout and longevity, seniority, power.
So there's always that flavor of things, that that's what we're looking for. Lisa was first put into her seat by her father, people like to remind people of the nepotistic start to her career that actually goes back to 2002. But she's been there 20 years. And she's starting to build up power. And that's always a pretty strong undercurrent up here.
Now of course, in the House race, they would all be newcomers. We've got to get used to the idea of having a newcomer in there instead of what Don Young was, which was feisty and ornery, but he was also the Dean of the House. And that was valued up here.
So hopefully that gives you a flavor. But it's the same old stuff. Obviously, guns up here are important. Of course, it's a liability for a Democrat, because the general sense is that Democrats are anti-Second Amendment, anti-gun types. When you consider that 75% of people own a gun in their household up here in Alaska, it isn't necessarily justified. But it is a political attack. And I thought Mary Peltola's line about that — 'to me, second amendment rights is about food security' — that was a brilliant line right there.
I think one of the very interesting things about the races too is the commonality between Peltola's support base and Lisa Murkowski's. They have this synergy going forward even though Murkowski is a Republican and Peltola is a Democratic. Weird, right? But both of their support bases come from women, come from largely people on the left and in the middle, nonpartisans, rural Alaskans, pro-choice, etc. One of the likely outcomes is potentially both of them dragging each other over the line.
Isaac Saul: Alright well we are coming on time, but while I have you I can't help myself but ask... this is, nationally, a pretty tight race for the Senate. I think most pollsters probably agree that Republicans have an edge in the House odds at this point. How do you see things playing out at the national level and the makeup of Congress come next year?
Ivan Moore: I think my opinion is the same as what everyone else thinks. I think the House is pretty much a foregone conclusion — that flips to the Republicans.
But then I’m keeping a very close eye on the various in play races on the Senate front. It's seven races pretty much up in the air as to which way they go. From the big one in Georgia, then Vance and Ryan in Ohio, and Nevada, and Pennsylvania, of course, with Oz and Fetterman. And it could go either way. It could be 50-50 again.
I think if I had to bet, I would go 51-49 right now to the Republicans, which will give them both chambers. I think the likelihood of it going 52-48 to the Democrats and Manchin and Sinema being made irrelevant is pretty unlikely. But it's possible. It's going to be fascinating to watch it.
Isaac Saul: If people want to keep up with your work and follow some of your writing and stuff, where's the best place to do that?
Ivan Moore: Get on the twits! [Laughs] On twitter, my handle is @IvanMoore1, I signed up sufficiently long ago that I managed to get the IvanMoore1 instead of Ivan Moore eight numbers. That is usually where I post stuff. I'm going to be doing a survey starting Wednesday this week. It'll be finished up at the weekend and all things being good, I'll have the numbers on the Senate race and the House race early next week.
Isaac Saul: Awesome. Ivan, thanks so much for the time, I'll be keeping my eye on Alaska, and I appreciate you chatting with us today.
Ivan Moore: Yeah, come up and visit sometime! It's great up here.
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