Alaska: Polling Uncertainty

By Jim Ellis

Anchorage, Alaska

July 10, 2020 — Public Policy Polling, the most prolific national pollster of late, just released a new survey of the upcoming Alaska elections from what could be the most difficult state in America to poll.

The PPP data find close races for president, Senate and US House, which isn’t particularly surprising when comparing today’s numbers to the previous Alaska polling ratio. Past actual results, however, reveal a relatively consistent Republican under-poll.

To begin, the PPP survey tested 1,081 “voters” via automated response device during the July 7-8 period. This firm is recently using the “voters” term to describe their sample. It is clear the respondents are not likely voters, but there is no associated definition that clearly identifies the “voters” universe.

The fact that the individuals are not identified as registered voters could mean they are eligible voters, which would translate into adults. Such a sample would substantially increase the polling error rate. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the poll producing some unusual totals.

The presidential race finds President Donald Trump holding a mere 48-45 percent edge over former vice president Joe Biden in a state that he won by 15 points in 2016. Additionally, the spread seems rather inconsistent with the results produced from the favorability questions. The President’s job approval was 46:49 percent positive to negative, which, despite being upside down, is far better than Trump’s national approval average. The more surprising number, however, was Biden’s poor 36:53 percent favorability index. Overlaying these numbers with the ballot test provides a seemingly inconsistent response pattern.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), standing for his first re-election, holds only a 39-34 percent lead over likely Democratic nominee, surgeon Al Gross. Looking back at the 2014 polling records when Sen. Sullivan was challenging then-incumbent Mark Begich (D), July polling of that year found Begich holding leads of 46-35 percent (CBS News/New York Times), and 44-37 percent (Harstad Strategic Services). Sullivan would then turn the race around and win 48-46 percent in that election year.

Toward the end of the 2014 Senate race, pollsters, including Public Polling, were detecting the correct trend. The late October 2014 polls from PPP and Rasmussen Reports forecast a Sullivan upset victory (PPP: 47-46 percent, Sullivan; Rasmussen, 47-42 percent Sullivan). Alaska pollster Ivan Moore in his firm’s late October poll, however, missed badly. He projected Begich would win, 48-42 percent.

The House race looks to be adopting a similar pattern for the Dean of the House, at-large Rep. Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon). For a man who began his political career losing to an opponent who had already died, Young would go onto win 24 consecutive elections and continue to serve in the House after 47 years.

The surprising result in the PPP survey finds Rep. Young actually trailing his 2018 opponent, education reform activist Alyse Galvin, who will be running as an Independent Democrat. The numbers suggest that Galvin holds a 43-41 percent edge.

Seeing close polling numbers is nothing new for Rep. Young, who almost always runs ahead of his polling numbers. Looking at the 2018 election, all October polling (five polls from three different pollsters) found Young either leading between two and four points or even trailing by one (Alaska Survey Research, Oct. 26-27, 2018; Galvin 49-48 percent). Rep. Young would win 53-46 percent.

Another factor in Alaska politics that is certainly ignored in this poll is the effect of the minor party candidates. Alaska traditionally sees several Independent or minor party entries that attract a significant share of the vote. In the 2016 presidential race, non-major party candidates received a combined 12.17 percent; in the 2014 Senate race, 6.21 percent; and in the 2018 governor’s contest, 4.15 percent. There was little in the way of minor party activity in the 2018 House race, but in 2016, the secondary House candidates combined for 13.66 percent of the overall vote.

The minor party candidate presence certainly skews polling and eventual race outcome. Consistently taking over five percent of the vote, and often into double digits, changes the complexion of the campaign and often turns barely breaking majority support into a landslide win. The minor party and independent candidate filing deadline coincides with the state primary, which, this year, is Aug. 18. At that time we will know just how many extra candidates will be on the ballot.

Now entering campaign prime time, it is worth watching the Alaska races to see if the previous polling vs. voting pattern again emerges, of if Democrats are able to break through at any level in the Last Frontier.

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