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Murkowski Can Win as Write-In

The Hotline reports that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated in the Republican primary last month by Joe Miller, will run for the Senate as a write-in candidate against Mr. Miller and the Democratic candidate, Scott McAdams.

The move is not entirely unexpected: Ms. Murkowski had not endorsed Mr. Miller, and instead had reportedly been in discussions with the Libertarian Party to appear on their ballot line. The Libertarians having refused her overtures, the only option remaining for Ms. Murkowski was to run as a write-in (Alaska, like most states, does not permit candidates to file for the ballot as independents after the party primaries have taken place).

Can Ms. Murkowski win? Sure she can. There is plenty of precedent for write-ins being elected to the Congress, although fewer have done so successfully in recent years. Meanwhile, a poll by Public Policy Polling found Ms. Murkowski getting 34 percent of the vote against Mr. Miller’s 38 percent and Mr. McAdams’ 22 percent. Private polling has also shown Ms. Murkowski running closely with Mr. Miller, according to The Hotline.

These polls must be approached with some caution. The survey from Public Policy Polling, for instance, asked voters to contemplate what they would do if Ms. Murkowski’s name appeared on the ballot as a Libertarian — rather than as a write-in.

The extent to which Ms. Murkowski, as a write-in, will sacrifice votes she otherwise might have received is unclear. Some voters might forget that she is running, or they might find it too cumbersome to fill out her name. Others might desire to do so, but might fill out their ballots incorrectly.

One recent precedent is that of Shelly Sekula-Gibbs, who ran as a write-in in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District after Republican Tom DeLay, facing ethics allegations, resigned from Congress in 2006. Ms. Sekula-Gibbs received 43 percent of the vote, but lost to the Democrat, Nick Lampson, who got 51 percent in a district that is ordinarily strongly Republican.

The lone poll of that Texas race, from Zogby International, overestimated Ms. Sekula-Gibbs’ standing when she was tested as though she were a conventional Republican candidate who was named on the ballot. The poll had Ms. Sekula-Gibbs winning the race by 13 points; in fact, she lost by eight.

Zogby also tried another, more creative approach in the poll, however. First, voters asked whether they would vote for Mr. Lampson, the Democrat; the Libertarian candidate; or a write-in. If they indicated they wanted to vote for a write-in, they were then given a list of Ms. Sekula-Gibbs and several other names from which to choose. That version of the poll — which arguably better resembled the voting experience — implied that Ms. Sekula-Gibbs would probably lose her race, as she did.

We can expect pollsters to take similarly creative approaches toward this race. It may make for some erratic polling, and it will be important to look past the top-line numbers and see exactly how the survey was conducted.

Still, the situations of Ms. Sekula-Gibbs and Ms. Murkowski are not directly comparable. Ms. Murkowski, whose father served as Senator and Governor of Alaska from 1981 through 2006, has near-universal name recognition in Alaska, whereas Ms. Sekula-Gibbs — who had previously been a member of the Houston City Council — did not. And, as The Times reported, Alaska’s elections secretary, Gail Fenumiai, is prepared to take a fairly liberal interpretation of voter intent. Ballots that misspell Ms. Murkowski’s surname would probably be counted, for instance, and so might ballots that identified her by her given name (e.g. “Lisa M.”).

Ms. Murkowski also has plenty of access to money; she had more than $1.8 million in cash-in-hand as of early August, although it is unclear how much of it she spent in the late stages of the primary campaign against Mr. Miller.

Finally, Alaska has a large number of independents. A plurality of 42 percent of Alaskans identified themselves that way in exit polling in 2008, one of the highest percentages in the country. Thus, an independent candidacy like Ms. Murkowski’s has a natural constituency of sorts.

So Ms. Murkowski should be a contender. She is perhaps not the favorite in the race — and polls which are not conducted thoughtfully might overestimate her standing. But an Election Day already full of exciting and unusual races just added another one.

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