In Alaska’s smallest city, big expectations for Super Tuesday

Rich Thorne remembers close elections.

In 1998, Carl Morgan beat Irene Nicholia by all of six votes in the race for House District 36, which at the time encompassed Bettles, the state’s smallest incorporated city. Bettles, nestled in the southern slopes of the Brooks Range, was split right down the middle: 10 votes for each candidate.

As Alaska Republicans prepare to vote in today’s presidential preference poll, they’ll have a crowded field of five candidates to pick from, and Thorne thinks it could be a close result. Places like Bettles, with a state-estimated population of 12, could be in the swing seat.

“It’s very likely the four or five voters that will vote here in Bettles could make a difference,” Thorne said.

This afternoon and evening, Alaska Republicans will join their counterparts in 12 other states and American Samoa by making their choice regarding the five candidates still vying for the GOP nomination: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Dennis Kasich.

From 3-8 p.m., volunteers across the state will run polling stations open only to registered Republicans. In Juneau, the station is in Centennial Hall. In Bettles, it’s at the airport weather station.

Suzanne Downing, spokeswoman for the Alaska GOP, said the polling stations are everywhere the state party could find a volunteer to run one. There’s one in towns from Dutch Harbor to Ketchikan and Barrow, but there are some gaps, too.

“We have some blank spots,” Downing said.

In Southeast as of Sunday, those blank spots included Petersburg, Yakutat and Skagway.

For those who do have a polling place to visit, the procedure is the same: A prospective voter presents his or her ID or a piece of mail containing a valid address. A volunteer checks the voter’s name against the list of registered Republicans compiled by the Alaska Division of Elections. If the voter isn’t a registered Republican, he or she will be given a chance to register.

Downing explained that independents, nonpartisan voters and Democrats aren’t allowed to participate in the poll because its results bind the votes of Alaska’s delegates to the national Republican Convention.

“Only Republicans get to do that,” Downing said.

If you are an independent who wants to participate, “we welcome you to get off the fence” and fill out a voter registration form, she added.

At 8 p.m., the polls will close and the volunteer organizers at each site will tally the results and phone them into election headquarters in Anchorage.

Alaska has 28 delegates to the national convention; the poll results will bind 25 of them proportionally. If a candidate gets at least 13 percent of Alaskans’ votes, he will get at least some delegates.

In Bettles, Thorne said he’s backing Ted Cruz. “To be quite honest, I’m a bit afraid of Donald Trump,” he said.

Speaking at a Monday morning press conference, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said she also plans to vote for Cruz. Other Republican officials have kept their decisions quiet. At the same press conference where Giessel announced her pick, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and the Senate President, declined to give his choice.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who spoke to the Legislature on Monday, declined to discuss his preference.

Statewide, according to a poll commissioned by the Anchorage Daily News and published in January, 27.9 percent of registered Republicans favored Trump. Cruz was the No. 2 choice, with 23.8 percent of respondents.

Four candidates have dropped out of the race since the poll was published.

Regardless of who wins, turnout is expected to be high. Four years ago, about 14,100 people participated in the Republican preference poll. This year, the GOP is printing more than 25,000 ballots, enough for about one in five registered Republicans in the state.

The reason for the big turnout is a simple one, Thorne said. “It matters. No matter how much we’re tired of hearing it, national politics matters.”

Why a poll and

not a caucus?

Until 1996, the state’s Republican and Democratic parties used the typical caucus system to make their presidential picks. Voters gathered at the precinct level to select delegates that supported their favored candidate. Those delegates went on to a district convention, which picked representatives for a state convention, which selected people to go to the national convention.

It was an arcane process, and participation was low. In 1996, GOP leaders thought they had a solution: a nonbinding straw poll shortly before the famed Iowa caucuses. Its nonbinding status meant it wouldn’t conflict with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation privilege, but it would still draw the interest of candidates eager to start their campaigns with a spark.

Pete Hallgren, now mayor of Delta Junction, was chairman of the Alaska Republican Party when former state legislator Fritz Pettyjohn suggested the poll.

The approach worked – presidential candidates Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan came to Alaska in the middle of winter, as did Elizabeth Dole, wife of eventual 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole.

At the time, Hallgren told the Anchorage Daily News that he had been skeptical of Pettyjohn’s idea but changed his mind when he saw the result. Speaking by phone from his home, he said he now believes that polls like Tuesday’s are important for building grassroots support for a party or candidate.

“If people are truly interested, it’s a way of getting them to actually have a say in the outcome, and it’s also a way of expanding the party’s participation,” he said.

On Jan. 1, 1996, according to statistics kept by the Alaska Division of Elections, there were 87,822 registered Republicans in Alaska. That rose to 111,325 by 2000, the second time the straw poll was held.

The picture wasn’t entirely perfect, however. In 1996, between 9,000 and 10,000 people participated in the straw poll, which was two weeks earlier than Iowa’s famed caucuses. In 2000, they happened one day later, and turnout plunged to less than half what it was in 1996.

In 2008, Alaska Republicans switched to their modern, binding presidential poll. That year, more than 13,000 voters participated in the GOP poll, according to figures published at the time.

As of Feb. 3, according to the division, there are 136,229 registered Republicans.

Democrats, who have kept the caucus system, haven’t seen their numbers grow much at all: In 1996, there were 64,439 registered. There are 70,596 today. (A majority of registered Alaskans are nonpartisan or undeclared: 280,240 of the state’s 514,162 voters.)

Editor’s Note: Super Tuesday preliminary results will be posted online at juneauempire.com on Tuesday evening. Final results will not be tallied until after print deadlines Wednesday.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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