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Alaska's close Senate race: why the polls tell us nothing

Right ahead of the election, polls released almost simultaneously show vastly different results in Alaska’s Senate race. In one, Lisa Murkowski is leading; in another, it’s Joe Miller.

Republican candidate for Senate Joe Miller speaks during a rally on Nov. 1, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Ben Margot/AP

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Tea party favorite Joe Miller is in first place, with a healthy seven-point lead over his two rivals. No, he is in third place, behind “Write-in” – meaning Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who is waging an unorthodox campaign to keep her seat – and dark-horse Democrat Scott McAdams. No, it is a three-way tie, with fully one-fifth of the voters still undecided in the final hours.

Number crunchers in the Lower 48 trying to predict which party will control the Senate might want to avoid factoring in poll numbers for Alaska’s three-way Senate race. On the eve of the election, polls released almost simultaneously are showing vastly different results.

How can that be?

Blame the difficulties of measuring the support of a write-in candidacy, which compound the usual challenges of polling in geographically, culturally, and technologically diverse Alaska, pollsters and political commentators say.

The results of a poll for Alaska’s Senate race depend on how the question is posed, says Ivan Moore, a pollster and political consultant in Anchorage. If Senator Murkowski’s name is included, she polls well; if the name is not mentioned, her results are depressed. The truth, Mr. Moore says, lies somewhere in the middle.

For now, campaigns are seizing on the results that suit their messages.

Mr. Miller, in a statement, touted the Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey that put him at 37 percent of the vote, with Murkowski and Mr. McAdams – “the two liberals I’m running against”–- tied at 30 percent. “This poll is good news in the midst of media coverage determined to make us lose,” the insurgent Republican nominee, who toppled Murkowski in the GOP primary after portraying her as a compromising moderate, said in a statement on his website.

Murkowski’s campaign is publicizing a weekend survey by Metro Intergroup Communications – commissioned by the campaign – that puts her in the lead. “Alaskans clearly recognize that Joe Miller’s agenda will devastate the economy and future of our state. Our goal during the final hours of this campaign is to increase voter turnout,” campaign spokesman Steve Wackowski said in a statement.

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McAdams, at a news conference Monday, cited the latest survey by Hays Research in Anchorage that showed the three candidates almost even – Miller leading with 27.1 percent, followed by McAdams at 25.9 percent and “write-in” with 25.3 (and a whopping 21.7 percent yet undecided). The results show that the race is “wide open” and he has as good a chance as Murkowski to knock off Miller, he said.

“We continue to make the case to rational Alaskans,” McAdams said at the news conference. “In this election, they have the opportunity to vote their values and not their fears.”

The Hays Research poll was done on behalf of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

Strategic voting for Murkowski by Alaskans who normally support Democrats could hurt McAdams, according to the PPP results. The former Sitka mayor has the highest positive ratings among the three candidates by far, but he is siphoning votes to Murkowski, according to the poll.

Moore, meanwhile, cautions against putting much faith in automated polls, like the PPP survey. Among other problems, they probably miss huge swaths of rural Alaska, home to about half of the state’s Natives. “It’s very difficult to get phone numbers out in the bush,” he says.

He says he is very skeptical of the PPP results in particular because they show Miller has more support from nonwhite Alaskans than he does from white Alaskans – a highly unlikely scenario given the strong Native opposition to him.

Even PPP doles out a word of caution with its latest poll results. “In a cycle that has seen a lot of strange races, this one may be the strangest,” the company said in a statement.

One result that is consistent among the widely varying polls, however, is an overwhelmingly negative rating for Miller. Those ratings have been recorded between 59 percent and 68 percent.

But the winner in this three-way race could wind up claiming the Senate seat with just a third of the total vote – meaning that Miller, the least popular candidate, might yet be Alaska’s next senator.

“He could get a 65 percent negative statewide and still win,” Moore says.

There will be lots to come in this one, including all the legal and other disputes over how write-in votes are cast and counted. This subject had to be settled by the state Supreme Court, and even so questions linger. Some Miller supporters filed a last-minute federal lawsuit challenging the state Division of Elections on its policy of showing lists of write-in candidates to voters who request them.

So ... take the usual slow Alaska vote counting, add the extra time needed to tally write-ins, plus extra time to challenge various write-ins, and you have the recipe for a very long saga.


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