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Alaska Race May Make for Long Election Night

Those of us hoping to get a good night’s sleep on Nov. 2 might not be pleased with the latest developments in the Alaska Senate race, where polls suggest a drop in support for the Republican nominee, Joe Miller. That could enable either Lisa Murkowski — the incumbent who lost the Republican primary to Mr. Miller but is running a write-in campaign as an independent — or perhaps the Democrat Scott McAdams, to win the race instead.

Most polling places in Alaska do not close until midnight, Eastern time. And vote-counting is always slow in the vast and remote state, which also has a high rate of absentee voting. The presence of a viable write-in candidate will create further delays, since these ballots will need to be reviewed by hand — election night counts may report the total number of write-in votes, but not how many of these were valid ballots cast for Ms. Murkowski. And once an initial count is in, a series of legal challenges may arise over different standards for counting the write-in votes. It’s plausible that the identity of Alaska’s new senator might not be known for weeks or even months.

The clearest path to victory had seemed to be Mr. Miller’s — since he does not have the handicap of being a write-in, like Ms. Murkowski — or, like Mr. McAdams, a Democrat in a state with few Democrats. But polls suggest that voters have grown less fond of Mr. Miller. A Rasmussen Reports poll issued late last week gave Mr. Miller 35 percent of the vote, down from 42 percent a month ago. Another survey, from Public Policy Polling, also had his vote-share decreasing, and found that 58 percent of Alaskan voters have a negative impression of him, up from an already-high 52 percent after his primary win.

The news last night that Mr. Miller’s security detail had handcuffed and detained a reporter, Tony Hopfinger, after a town-hall-style meeting held by Mr. Miller is unlikely to reverse those trends, and may accelerate them. (A statement by Mr. Miller defended the actions, characterizing the reporter as “potentially violent.”)

As of last week, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast in Alaska suggested that Mr. Miller has a 74 percent chance of winning the race, Ms. Murkowski a 21 percent chance, and Mr. McAdams a 5 percent chance. That forecast was calculated before the Rasmussen poll was released, however, and before yesterday’s incident involving the reporter.

The forecast applies a penalty to Ms. Murkowski ‘s numbers in evaluating surveys that treat her as if  she were a named option on the ballot, as there is some evidence that write-in candidates underperform in these types of polls. Both the Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling surveys, however — in an effort to simulate the voter’s experience at the polling place — required their respondents to go through some extra amount of effort in order to select Ms. Murkowski. In the Public Policy Polling survey, for instance, voters were asked to choose between Mr. Miller, Mr. McAdams, and “someone else” — and if they selected “someone else,” they were given Ms. Murkowski’s name along with several others. Nevertheless, Ms. Murkowski was nearly tied with Mr. Miller in the poll, with 33 percent of the vote to his 35 percent.

Mr. McAdams’ chances of winning are also improved the closer that Mr. Miller and Ms. Murkowski finish to each other. Democrats make up only about 20 percent of the electorate in Alaska. But it is not inconceivable that Mr. McAdams could finish with perhaps 34 or 35 percent of the vote, which is about where he’d end up if he won the support of almost all Democrats and about one-third of independents, some of whom are left-leaning.

That could be a winning figure for Mr. McAdams if, for instance, Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Miller each finished with 32 or 33 percent of the vote. It seems less likely now than it did a few weeks ago that Mr. Miller is a safe bet to secure 40 percent of the vote or more. The tricky thing for Mr. McAdams is that, if Mr. Miller is indeed yielding some of his support to Ms. Murkowski, that only benefits him up to a point. If Mr. Miller’s support were to collapse further, for instance, and he received only 25 percent of the vote on Election Day, most of the voters fleeing Mr. Miller would probably choose the other Republican, Ms. Murkowski, instead, which might boost her standing to 40 percent or above.  In that outcome, while Mr. McAdams would finish ahead of Mr. Miller, he would nevertheless finish in second place.

Still, this has become an election in which any ordering of the top three candidates is possible. Three-way races are ordinarily quite volatile — and with the contingencies of Ms. Murkowski’s write-in candidacy, and Mr. Miller’s stumbles in the campaign, this one could be especially so. Although our methodology would count a win by Ms. Murkowski as a Republican win, since she has said she would continue to caucus with them if re-elected, Mr. McAdams has some chances, too.

Even if Republicans win key Senate races like those in California and Washington that might otherwise allow them to claim a majority of the chamber, Alaska could at least potentially be a spoiler. And Alaska has some history of bucking national trends. In 1994, for instance, a strong year for Republicans, it was the only state to switch from a Republican governor to a Democrat, narrowly electing Tony Knowles. But in 2008, a good year for Democrats, it re-elected its Republican incumbent to the House, Don Young, in spite of polling that had showed him behind.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.