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Why Sarah Palin isn’t the clear favorite to win the Alaska special election

The upcoming US House special election in Alaska is one of them. Former GOP Governor Sarah Palin is running for the state seat left vacant by the death of longtime Republican Rep. Don Young, and I have no idea if she’ll win or not.
To be clear, Palin starts in an enviable position. Primary and general elections take place in two months (June) and four months (August) respectively. This leaves most candidates with little time to come forward and gives a well-known former governor a leg up on the competition.
Indeed, in most cases, Palin would likely be considered the overwhelming favorite to win the primary and general elections. His main challengers would struggle to compete with a candidate who sucks most of the oxygen out of the race, especially with former President Donald Trump endorsing him.
It would then be difficult to defeat Palin in the general election given Alaska’s red tilt — Trump won the state by 10 points in 2020 — and how unpopular Democratic President Joe Biden is currently.

A new electoral system

Alaska, however, does not conduct its elections like other states, and Palin is not like most former governors. Normally, voters vote in partisan primaries, the top voters run in the general election under their party’s banner, and the candidate with the most votes wins the general election.

This year, Alaska is running a type of jungle primary (known as a top four primary) to select candidates who qualify for the general election. Simply put, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will run in the same primary, with the top four voters qualifying for the general election, which will then be decided by preferential ballot.
Additionally, voters in the special election will also face more than 50 candidates – conservatives, moderates, liberals – appearing on the primary ballot.

It is plausible for a candidate to run in the general election ballot with a very low (i.e. less than 10%) or high (greater than 50%) vote percentage.

Given that Palin is quite well-known, she likely initially benefits from the wide cast of candidates. All you need is a strong base of support to contest general elections in a top-four primary system.

But Palin’s notoriety also comes with the complication that she’s the candidate most likely to come under attack. Conservative rivals will want to enlist the support of people who would be inclined to vote for her. Liberal candidates will sue her because they disagree with her policies.

In most electoral systems, a candidate like Palin, assuming she wins her party’s primary, would be able to recover from all the primary barbs in the general election. Here, however, we will have four major candidates in the general election.

These could be candidates attacking Palin from left and right. We don’t know how many of each there will be.

Will there be two Republicans in the legislative elections? Will there be three? Will the four candidates all be Republicans? Maybe only one of them will be a Republican.

General Election Complications

Under the priority voting system in general elections, voters can rank their preferred candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and their ballots are reallocated to their voters’ second-choice. If no one has a majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes after the second round will have their ballots reallocated. The candidate with the most votes after the third round would be declared the winner.

Why Sarah Palin isn’t the clear favorite to win the Alaska special election

If Palin is the only Republican against a Democrat after two rounds of vote reallocation, she’s likely the favorite because of Alaska’s Republican quality.

Palin could face a more moderate Republican in the final round, however. It might prove difficult for her. Democrats, moderate Republicans and moderate independents could team up to oppose her.

Plus, alliances in the various rounds of revoting could mean Palin might not even qualify for the final round.

We’ve already seen how ranking voting in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary last year led to the initial third-place candidate nearly overtaking the initial first-place candidate.
Twelve years ago, under different circumstances, voters in Alaska re-elected moderate Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski as the written candidate in the general election after losing the GOP primary to a more conservative challenger. Murkowski was able to do this because many Democrats rallied to his side.

The electoral system of the first four at least makes the possibility of a more moderate Republican victory plausible.

But perhaps the biggest unknown in this race is how Alaskans will react to Palin. She last won an election in the state in 2006 (or 2008, depending on whether or not you counted her appearance on that year’s GOP presidential ticket). The longest-serving incumbent governor in the country today (Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington State) was first elected to the governorship in 2012.
A lot has changed since Palin’s last win in Alaska. She became a nationally known personality after John McCain selected her as his running mate in 2008. She also became a Fox personality.

Of course, you could argue that switching to a more populist GOP would only help Palin. But the absence of a partisan primary complicates its chances of general elections.

We’ll see if the former governor has what it takes to win what could be her first statewide election in about 15 years.

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