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Does Alaska’s Special Election Create An Opening For Sarah Palin’s Comeback?

On Friday, Sarah Palin returned from the political wilderness by announcing a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, nearly 14 years since the then-governor of Alaska entered the national spotlight as the Republican vice presidential nominee. 

It’s a curious reappearance, as Palin largely exited politics after her failed 2008 run with the late Sen. John McCain. She surprised many by then opting to not complete her term as governor, resigning in 2009 to then kickstart a media career. And although she never completely abandoned national politics — she backed former President Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, had her own political action committee and teased campaigns for president and Senate — up until now, she hadn’t taken the leap to run for another office.

But now Palin has reentered the fray by running in the Aug. 16 special election for Alaska’s lone House seat, which sits vacant following the death of longtime Republican Rep. Don Young. 

The question now is: Can she win? The short answer is, quite possibly — but of course, we’re a long way from knowing. The push and pull of different factors, including Palin’s star power, controversial status and Alaska’s new electoral system, will make or break her comeback bid.

Unquestionably, one of the biggest positives Palin has working in her favor is her high name recognition, both in Alaska and nationally. She is also relatively popular in GOP circles: A late January/early February poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 62 percent of Republicans across the country had a favorable view of Palin, compared with 23 percent who had an unfavorable view, for a net favorability of +39. That’s not nearly as rosy as the +80 net favorability she enjoyed among Republicans around the time of her vice presidential bid, but it’s still objectively good news for Palin.

The fact that Palin is both well-known and popular among Republicans is a huge boon because it will make it easier for her to advance in Alaska’s June 11 primary, in which she will face nearly 50 other candidates. That’s especially important in this election, too, as Alaska will use its new electoral system for the first time: All candidates, regardless of party, will run together in the primary in which each voter will cast one vote, and the top-four vote-getters will advance to the Aug. 16 general election, where voters will pick Alaska’s next representative using ranked-choice voting. 

It’s hard to know how the primary vote will be split among a candidate field this large, but given her name recognition in the state, Palin has a very good shot of at least finishing in the top-four. Moreover, it’s not just her notoriety working in her favor. Palin could also lock up conservative Republican support, given Trump has endorsed her in a state he carried by 10 percentage points in 2020.

But there’s a lot working against her, too. For starters, Palin might be well-known, but she’s not a beloved figure in Alaska. Consider an October 2021 poll from Alaska Survey Research that found that only 31 percent of registered voters in Alaska had a favorable view of her. Even more troubling for Palin is that this was identical to ASR’s finding in an October 2018 survey of likely midterm voters. It’s possible, in other words, that Palin might be the first choice for many conservative Republicans in the state, but she may struggle to win many second-choice votes beyond this part of the GOP. It also doesn’t point to her ability to easily build a winning ranked-choice coalition in the general election.

There is also the possibility that despite her conservative bona fides, Palin will not necessarily corner that faction of the Republican base — or even the general election, as more than one Republican could advance from the primary. Already three other high-profile GOP contenders have emerged: state Sen. Joshua Revak, a former aide to Young; Tara Sweeney, an Iñupiat who served in Trump’s administration; and Nick Begich III, a member of the high-profile (but mostly Democratic) Alaska political family. Begich was already running against Young before the congressman died, so he may have a bit of a head start in attracting support across the state. Additionally, former state Sen. John Coghill is running, too, although the former state Senate majority leader narrowly lost renomination in his 2020 primary.

At first glance, it seems likely that a Republican wins the special election, given the red lean of the state and the Republican-leaning political environment. However, Alaska is also a weird state politically, with something of an independent streak. After all, 58 percent of Alaska registered voters do not identify with a political party, among the highest in the country. So we shouldn’t necessarily discount the Democrats and independents running, especially since it’s the state’s first use of a top-four primary and ranked-choice voting in a general election.

For its part, the Alaska Democratic Party is lining up behind Anchorage Assembly member Chris Constant, although other notable Democrats are running, including state Rep. Adam Wool; former state Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, a Yup’ik Eskimo; and indigenous activist Emil Notti, an 89-year old Koyukon Athabascan who lost to Young in the 1973 special election for this seat. Meanwhile, a handful of independent (“nonpartisan” or “undeclared” in Alaska parlance) candidates are also running: Al Gross, an independent who lost the 2020 U.S. Senate race as the Democratic nominee; former Republican state Rep. Andrew Halcro; former Alaska assistant attorney general and garden columnist Jeff Lowenfels; and even a North Pole city councilor who changed his name to Santa Claus. Did we mention there are a lot of candidates?

There’s been no public polling of the special primary yet, but we do have one data point on the special general election that includes Palin: A Change Research poll funded by 314 Action Fund, which spent heavily to boost Gross’s campaign in 2020, found Palin and Gross running neck and neck at around 35 percent after respondents’ choices were reallocated via ranked-choice voting. To be sure, the poll only included four candidates: Palin, Gross, Revak and one other Republican who ultimately chose not to run, but even so, the poll does illustrate how Palin could win in a ranked-choice general election. At the same time, though, it underscores how ranked-choice voting could make for an incredibly close contest, possibly because of Palin’s poor standing among Alaska voters writ large.

One last wrinkle in the Alaska race is that the special general election will coincide with the regular primary for the November general election, which means we will find out who won the special election at the same time as we discover which four candidates advanced to the regular general election. Most of the high-profile contenders, including Palin, have filed or say they intend to file for the regular contest (they have until June 1 to do so). In other words, most of the major candidates will essentially be campaigning for two elections at once in the coming months. Still, at least a few notable names — Coghill, Halcro and Notti, for instance — only plan to run in the special, so it’s not out of the question that the special election winner will not be among the candidates who advance to the regular general election.

As the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket, Palin has already made history. Palin was the second woman to ever run for vice president on one of the two major parties’ national tickets, after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and it’s possible that’s not all Palin will end up having in common with Ferraro. Ferraro also lost her vice presidential campaign and then years later sought to make a political comeback, running for New York’s U.S. Senate seat in 1992. But Ferraro came up short in that race, losing by less than 1 point in an ugly Democratic primary; she also mounted another unsuccessful Senate bid in 1998 where she lost the primary by a much larger margin. How Palin’s comeback plays out remains to be seen — it’s definitely possible that Palin is victorious, but it’s also not without risks, as Ferraro knew all too well.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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