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Could Sarah Palin have cost the GOP a House seat?

Republican U.S. House candidate and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin speaks as former president Donald Trump looks on at a rally last month. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Alaska’s new ranked-choice election system might have saved the political career of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. And there’s a reasonable chance it might also short-circuit Sarah Palin’s attempt to resurrect hers.

The current special election results suggest we could see a surprising upset for Democrats ahead of what was supposed to be a good 2022 midterm for Republicans — an upset that could plausibly be blamed on Palin, the former Republican governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate who is running for a U.S. House seat.

But how much of a chance does Democrat Mary Peltola have of pulling this off in red Alaska? It looks like it’ll be close.

In a traditional voting system, voters select just one candidate. With ranked-choice voting, they rank candidates in order of preference. Here's how it works. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Election results from Tuesday show Peltola leading Palin on first-choice votes, 38 percent to 32 percent, with 70 percent of expected votes counted. There are many votes left, but it looks like the race will come down to those two, with another Republican, Nick Begich, currently in third place with 28.6 percent.

Alaska’s ranked-choice system works by distilling the general election down to four candidates using an open, nonpartisan primary. From there, voters rank those four candidates according to preference. After the first-choice votes are counted, the fourth-place candidate is eliminated, and that person’s votes get distributed among those voters’ second-choice candidates. Then the third-place candidate is eliminated, distributing their voters between the remaining two candidates, until one candidate wins more than half of the total votes.

Palin’s fate appears to mostly boil down to one thing: whether enough of Begich’s voters marked her as their second choice. It’s logical to assume a strong majority of them did, given that Begich and Palin are both Republicans. Peltola gaining enough votes to beat Palin would require many voters who cast ballots for a Republican to then pick a Democrat for their second choice, over Palin.

That said, Palin cuts a polarizing figure even in the state she once led as governor. And the available evidence suggests Peltola could succeed, even if it might not be likely.

For one thing, the state held its regular primary election the same day, and that race featured the same candidates — along with more than a dozen others. Comparing those results to the special election results, Palin actually gained the least in the latter, narrower race. She gained 0.8 percentage points, while Begich gained 1.8 points. Peltola gained the most — 2.8 points — even though, given that most of the regular primary’s also-rans were Republicans, you might expect their supporters to vote for a Republican in the special.

But that doesn’t mean Begich voters will break the same way. Voters who cast primary ballots for candidates without a real shot at victory might, in the final analysis, operate with a very different political calculus than Begich-first voters.

A better way to analyze this, then, might be to use the available polling. Ivan Moore’s Alaska Survey Research has conducted repeated surveys of the race, simulating the ranked-choice system — and the results of those polls are instructive. They also suggest that the special election will be very tight.

Moore’s most recent survey mirrored the current results for first-choice votes pretty closely. He had Peltola at 41 percent, and Palin and Begich each between 29 percent and 30 percent.

In a race in which Begich was eliminated, Palin beat out Peltola for about two-thirds (68 percent) of Begich voters who ranked at least one of the other two front-runners, while Peltola took about one-third (32 percent) of those Begich voters. (Some voters don’t rank all candidates, and their votes are eliminated if they don’t rank one of the final two.) According to the current results, Moore noted Thursday, that would put Palin at 52 percent and Peltola at 48 percent — a Palin win.

But notably, in Moore’s survey that showed Peltola doing slightly better on first-choice votes than shown in the current results, she did get enough Begich voters. She went from 41 percent to 51 percent of the vote and defeated Palin, 51-49.

Given margins of error — and the possibility that the race shifted in its final weeks — that suggests this could break either way.

Which brings us to the remaining votes. There are plenty yet to count, and Peltola could actually gain some ground. Many of the remaining votes are absentees, and Peltola is currently overperforming on those ballots, leading Palin by about 14 points on first choices. Moore also suggests Peltola could gain some ground as rural votes come in, as well as disputed ballots, which often break for Democrats.

So it’s worth watching whether Peltola could climb closer to 40 percent of the first-choice votes. If she can, she would then need about one-third of Begich-first voters — which appears doable.

From there, it’s valid to ask whether such an upset would owe to ranked-choice voting. The system is intended to benefit more moderate candidates, and in its first go-round in Alaska, it does seem to have done so. Murkowski appears to have benefited by the race effectively being distilled down to a Republican-versus-Republican race in which Murkowski can win with lots of help from Democratic voters (though that race isn’t over).

Murkowski lost a traditional primary in 2010 and likely would have done so again, but she appears to have more than a fighting chance, given that she leads Donald Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka by four points in the primary, 44 to 40 percent.

But what about the special election? In that case, it’s more difficult to say. Palin would very likely have won a traditional GOP primary over Begich, meaning the race would still have been her versus Peltola. But it does seem possible that Republicans might have rallied more to her cause in that traditional scenario — versus one where voters have to rank the candidates, unclear about who the final two would be.

Either way, a Peltola win would sure be an upset. And given how close it looks — and how Begich appeared to be better-positioned to win a head-to-head with Peltola — it’s possible Palin will have wound up costing her party the special election.

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