This photo shows a sample ballot for the Aug. 16 special general election. The election will be the debut of ranked choice voting in Alaska. The new election system is expected to have an impact on races, as shown in a recently released poll. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

This photo shows a sample ballot for the Aug. 16 special general election. The election will be the debut of ranked choice voting in Alaska. The new election system is expected to have an impact on races, as shown in a recently released poll. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Dunleavy, Begich, Murkowski remain favorites in new poll

Ranked-choice voting could shake up U.S. House race, as Peltola has slim edge against Palin

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and U.S. House hopeful Nick Begich III are poised for dominant victories during this year’s special and general elections, according to an online Alaska Survey Research poll of 1,201 likely voters conducted between July 2-5. The survey also shows U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski eking out a narrow win due to the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.

Ranked-choice voting also could shake up the House race, since Democratic candidate Mary Peltola appears to have a slight advantage in a head-to-head match against former Gov. Sarah Palin, who is in a close battle with Begich as the preferred Republican candidate, said Ivan Moore, head of the research firm conducting the survey.

“(Peltola) does narrowly beat Palin because she’s got a 60% negative response,” Moore said Thursday. “It introduces all kinds of campaign dynamics.”

Most of the numbers in the survey released Thursday are similar to a poll conducted by Moore’s firm in May, although support for Begich has increased by about 5% since then, Moore said. He said Peltola’s increased support is also in line with expectations for a Democratic nominee since potential top contender Al Gross dropped out of the race following the 48-candidate special election primary last month.

“It was pretty much expected that Mary Peltola would get to 40% because that’s the Democratic base in Alaska,” he said.

In terms of favorability, Peltola scores 36.5% positive, 15.6% negative, 17.2% no opinion and 30.7% unknown, according to the survey. Her campaign manager, Kim Jones, said that suggests Peltola’s chances against Begich can improve as more voters get to know her.

“She has the lowest name recognition, but the highest positives, so she really has room to grow,” Jones said.

Moore, when asked about the possibility, said Peltola ”will come up against the brick wall of partisan divide” and even the most popular of Democratic candidates tend to “come to a screeching halt” at about 45% unless the Republican candidate is highly unpopular.

That’s where Palin may be an enormous “X-factor” that has been seen in primaries elsewhere across the country, with Democratic candidates faring better in polls against controversial Republican candidates who win their party’s nomination. In some cases Democratic entities have actively worked to elect less popular Republican candidates.

“That’s definitely not going to be our strategy,” Jones said. “We’re focusing on Mary.”

Murkowski has long been assumed to be perhaps the biggest beneficiary of ranked-choice voting, which the most recent poll illustrates clearly.

In the current four-candidate field she trails Republican Kelly Tshibaka by a 35.3-42.6% tally, with Democrat Patricia Chesbro at 17.4% and Alaska Independence candidate Dustin Darden at 4.6%. That shifts to a 35.7/44.7/19.6 percent split for Murkowski/Tshibaka/Chesbro after the first elimination round, but nearly all of Chesbro’s Democratic supporters flock to Murkowski and give her a 52.2-47.8 percent win in the final-two vote.

“Without (ranked-choice) she would have had a zero percent chance of winning because she would have had to go through a Republican primary,” Moore said, noting that no-hope scenario could only be avoided if “she’s an independent and skips the primary, and maybe does a deal with the Democrats.”

Mary Ann Pruitt, an adviser to the Tshibaka campaign, challenged in a written statement the suggestion Murkowski will end up with a majority when the final round of votes are tallied.

“Lisa Murkowski has never gotten 50% in any senate race and she’s not going to start now because she has turned her back on Alaska and is enabling all the Biden policies that are crushing us,” Pruitt said. “Kelly Tshibaka will be the next senator from Alaska.”

Dunleavy appears to have an easy path to a second term in a three-way general election race and would still prevail if one of his two presumed opponents drops out to avoid a split vote. He is favored by 50.9%, with 26.4% of respondents supporting Democrat Les Gara and 22.7% Independent former Gov. Bill Walker.

The statewide primary is Aug. 16, during which up to four top-finishers will advance to the Nov. 8 general election. Voters on that date will also choose a U.S. House member to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term.

Ranked choice voting means voters will rank their candidates by preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated and the second-preference votes are added to candidates’ totals. If there is no candidate among the remaining three with a majority the lowest finisher is eliminated and the third-preference votes are added to determine a final winner.

The survey states it has a margin of error of ±2.9% at 95% confidence, and data is weighted to match population proportions by region of Alaska, the 2020 presidential vote, and by age, ethnicity, gender, education level and party affiliation of respondents.

A total of 78.7% of respondents said they are certain and 12.8% percent said they are very likely to vote in the Aug. 16 primary election, while 86.5% said they are certain and 9.3% percent said they are very likely to vote in the Nov. 8 general election.

The age distribution tilts toward the older side, with about 19% ages 18-34, 35% ages 35-54, and 46% over age 55.

Categorized by region, the survey states 40.2% of respondents are in Anchorage, 28.6% in Southcentral, 13% in Fairbanks, 10.5% in Southeast and 7.7% in Rural Alaska. Sorted by zip code, a total of 58% live in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area, 13% in Fairbanks, 7.7% in the Kenai Peninsula, 5.6% in Juneau and the remainder in 23 other zip codes.

Southeast region tallies for the races tend to lean more liberal than statewide averages, although to a lesser extent than rural Alaska. The margin of error is higher for subgroups due to the smaller sample sizes.

Dunleavy, for example, is favored by a 41.9/26.1/32 percent split over Gara and Walker in the governor’s race by Southeast respondents. Murkowski is favored over Tshibaka 55.5% to 44.5% and Begich over Peltola 52.8% to 47.2%.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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