For the second time in as many weeks, Democrats have won a competitive special election. And by the numbers, this win was even more impressive than last week’s victory in New York’s 19th District.
On Wednesday, the Alaska Division of Elections announced that former state Rep. Mary Peltola had defeated former Gov. Sarah Palin in the special election for the state’s vacant U.S. House seat, becoming the first Alaska Native ever elected to Congress and the first Democrat to win a statewide election since 2008.
Although the actual election took place on Aug. 16, we had to wait until Aug. 31 to learn the results because of Alaska’s new system of ranked choice voting. Instead of picking just one candidate, as voters do in most other states, Alaskans were invited to rank the three candidates on the ballot in the order of their preference. And after all ballots were counted, 40 percent of voters had chosen Peltola as their first choice, 31 percent had chosen Palin and 29 percent had chosen Republican businessman Nick Begich III. Under the rules of ranked choice voting, Begich — as the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes — was then eliminated, and his votes were redistributed to whomever his voters ranked second.
Unsurprisingly, most of Begich’s votes (50 percent) went to his fellow Republican, Palin. But an impressive 29 percent went to Peltola, and 21 percent were “exhausted,” meaning there was no second-choice pick, and the votes were essentially thrown out. That combination was enough for Peltola to win. While Palin gained more votes from the redistribution than Peltola did, Peltola was starting from a higher total, and receiving 29 percent of Begich’s votes was enough to keep her ahead of Palin. In the end, Peltola received 51 percent of the votes counted in the final round, while Palin received 49 percent.
|Candidate||Party||1st-choice votes||Votes added in redistribution*||Final-round votes|
|Nick Begich III||R||53,756||—||—|
Impressively, Peltola managed to prevail despite Alaska being a fairly red state. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,1 Alaska is 15 percentage points redder than the nation as a whole. That means going by the results in the final round, Peltola’s 3-point victory2 was an 18-point overperformance for Democrats. By contrast, last week, Democrat Pat Ryan won New York’s 19th District, an R+4 seat, by 2 points — just a 6-point overperformance.
|Date||Seat||Partisan Lean||Vote Margin||Margin Swing|
|March 20, 2021||Louisiana 2nd*||D+51||D+66||D+15|
|March 20, 2021||Louisiana 5th*||R+31||R+45||R+13|
|May 1, 2021||Texas 6th*||R+11||R+25||R+14|
|June 1, 2021||New Mexico 1st||D+18||D+25||D+7|
|Nov. 2, 2021||Ohio 11th||D+57||D+58||EVEN|
|Nov. 2, 2021||Ohio 15th||R+19||R+17||D+2|
|Jan. 11, 2022||Florida 20th||D+53||D+60||D+7|
|June 7, 2022||California 22nd||R+11||R+24||R+14|
|June 14, 2022||Texas 34th*||D+5||R+5||R+10|
|June 28, 2022||Nebraska 1st||R+17||R+5||D+12|
|Aug. 9, 2022||Minnesota 1st||R+15||R+4||D+11|
|Aug. 16, 2022||Alaska at-large†||R+15||D+3||D+18|
|Aug. 23, 2022||New York 19th||R+4||D+2||D+6|
|Aug. 23, 2022||New York 23rd||R+15||R+7||D+9|
Democrats have clearly overperformed in special elections since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson in June, but the reasons for Peltola’s win may have been more local than national.
Namely, Palin was a very flawed candidate. After her 2008 vice-presidential campaign flopped, Palin resigned the governorship (reportedly amid ethics investigations), bought a house in Arizona and went on to appear on reality TV — giving many Alaskans the sense that she had abandoned them. According to a July poll from Alaska Survey Research, 61 percent of Alaska registered voters had a negative opinion of her. It’s hard to win with those kinds of numbers.
It seems likely then, that had a different Republican advanced to the final round, Peltola would have lost. According to that same poll — which almost exactly nailed the final margin between Peltola and Palin — Begich would have defeated Peltola 55 percent to 45 percent if he had made it to the final round instead of her. That would still have been bluer than Alaska’s R+15 partisan lean, but it mostly demonstrates how much of Republicans’ underperformance here may have been due to simple candidate quality (or lack thereof).
What’s more, that Republican underperformance disappears if you look not at the results from the final round, but rather at only first-choice votes. Sixty percent of voters selected a Republican (either Palin or Begich) as their preferred candidate, while only 40 percent selected a Democrat (Peltola), perhaps a better gauge of their actual partisan preferences. In fact, by that metric, the Alaska special election was actually an overperformance for Republicans. Their 20-point combined margin over Peltola was 5 points better than the state’s R+15 partisan lean.
So it’s not clear what, if any, national lessons we can take away from the Alaska election. But that’s OK — because you should never generalize based on a single special election. They are simply too prone to idiosyncrasies such as, for example, a uniquely flawed candidate. Instead, you have to average several special elections together before they become predictive of the midterms.
And when we do that, it’s clear that, no matter how you count Alaska, Democrats are punching above their weight in special elections since Dobbs. Other than Alaska, there have been four federal special elections since that June 24 decision, and Democrats did at least 6 points better than the partisan lean of the districts they ran in each election. If you plug in Alaska’s first-round numbers (the ones that are good for Republicans), the average Democratic overperformance in special elections since Dobbs is 7 points. If you use the final-round numbers (i.e., Peltola’s 3-point defeat of Palin), it’s 11 points.
In other words, while Peltola’s victory is a nice morale boost for Democrats, an extra vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an important milestone for Alaska Natives and, of course, undoubtedly a thrill for Peltola herself, it’s also kind of beside the point for purposes of predicting the midterms. We already knew that something — probably Dobbs — had shifted the national environment in Democrats’ favor since midsummer. The Alaska result is, at best, consistent with that and, at worst, doesn’t contradict it.
But we also know that things typically get worse for the president’s party in the midterm home stretch. There are still more than two months left until Election Day — plenty of time for the political winds to shift once again.