Polling for US Senate races is often sparse before Labor Day. Some states, such as Arizona this year, get bombarded by polls for a year or more leading up to November. Others leave observers desperately waiting for more polls to give a clearer picture. It is much more unusual to sit four months from Election Day without a single poll of a potentially competitive Senate race. Sure, Alaska is a weird state to poll and it’s not a traditional swing state. Incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan is favored, but to not have one poll? That’s strange.
Thankfully, due to an incredible crowdfunding project by Election Twitter, this will be changing soon. PublicPolicyPolling will conduct a poll, which is now in the field and should be published tomorrow. With the poll igniting plenty of interest in Alaska, it’s a good time to examine the race.
One half of the equation in this race is incumbent Senator Dan Sullivan (R). He might well be among the top 10 most anonymous Senators in the chamber. Sullivan is a Marine Corps veteran who later practiced as a lawyer in Anchorage. He served in the Bush Administration during the mid-2000s and was Alaska’s Attorney General from 2009-2010. From 2010-13, he served as the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. He left the office in September of that year to launch a campaign for US Senate against then-incumbent Democrat Mark Begich. Begich is the only Democrat to serve as Senator of Alaska since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
Sullivan won a contested Republican primary and then narrowly edged the incumbent, winning by just over 2%, 47.96%-45.83%. Unlike his counterpart Lisa Murkowski, whose independent streak has given her a nationwide profile, Sullivan is a straight party-line vote. He has voted with the President 91.4% of the time since 2017, per FiveThirtyEight. That should be expected in a vacuum, given Alaska’s partisanship. The state supported Trump by 14.7 percentage points in 2016 and has been a consistently Republican state over the last half-century.
The candidate likely to face Sullivan in November is Independent Al Gross. Gross is also running in the Democratic primary, which is a quirk of Alaska’s party system. Gross has the endorsement of the Alaska Demoricatic Party and a slew of local politicians and national figures. Thus, he is likely to glide through the primary in August. He comes from a well-known politically family in Alaska, as his dad was the Attorney General in the 1970s, while his mother Sheri served as the first Executive Director of the United Fishermen of Alaska and also founded the League of Women Voters in Alaska.
Gross himself, however, has tried to cast himself as a political outsider, given that this is his first foray into politics. Previously he has been an orthopedic surgeon and is also a commercial fisherman. If that last part sounds very Alaska to you, wait until you find out that Al Gross has “prospected for gold and sailed through gales in the Pacific Ocean” and also “faced off with multiple grizzly bears”, per his campaign website.
Alaska Has the Weirdest Politics
The impact of Alaska’s idiosyncratic politics on this race should not be underestimated. The first thing to know about Alaska is that it has a major independent streak. In 2016 the state gave 12.17% of its vote to third party candidates in the presidential election. In 1992 it was Ross Perot’s second strongest state, as he took 28.4%. Similarly, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 10.07% of the vote, his strongest state of any in the union. In 2010, Murkowski won re-election by running a write-in campaign, defeating Democrat Scott McAdams and Republican Joe Miller.
In some ways, Alaska is politically the wild west, marching to its own drummer and mostly doing its own thing. The state also bucks the trend of the rest of the country in that its rural vote is considerably more Democratic than many of its cities. This is due to another factor that makes it odd: a high Native American population. At nearly 15% Native American, Alaska has by far the highest indigenous percentage and many of those voters live in the barren northern wilderness of the state .
Alaska’s State House is currently controlled by a coalition of 15 Democrats, 6 turncoat Republicans, and 2 independents. One of those independents, Bryce Edgmon, is the Speaker of the House in that chamber. Another complicating factor in this race is a lack of polling. Alaska is difficult to poll, and its distance from the rest of the country often leaves it out of major political analysis or discourse.
How to Win Alaska
In Alaska, election data is hard to come by, so looking at the state’s political geography is difficult. The state has “boroughs” instead of counties and they report election data separating absentee and election day voting. Some of that data is reported by State House district rather than by borough, making it even tougher to understand. The good news is that, thanks to an article at RRH Elections that approximated borough equivalent election data for every Presidential election in Alaska’s history, some data does exist.
Much of the state’s vote comes from only a few areas, chief among them the Anchorage Metropolitan Area. This consists of both Anchorage borough and Matanuska-Susitna borough, which together combined to cast nearly 55% of the entire state’s vote in 2016. While Anchorage itself had long been a Republican city, in the era of Trump it has crept more towards Democrats. Trump only carried it 46.9%-41.5% in 2016. Gross likely will need to run up the score in Anchorage to make up for the rest of the state.
Additionally, given current polling, Joe Biden would probably be favored to carry Anchorage if the election were held today. On the flip side, Matanuska-Susitna borough, which includes towns like Palmer and Wasilla (home to Sarah Palin), is rock-ribbed Republican. Trump carried this borough by over 50 points in 2016 and getting a huge margin here is key for a Sullivan win. While Mat-Su borough is only around 1/3 the size of Anchorage, the monster margins Republicans normally frequently get here help them win close races.
Fairbanks-North Star borough cast the third most votes in the state, just a shade behind Mat-Su. It went to Trump 54% to 33%, again with a fair number of third party voters. The city of Fairbanks itself is decently hospitable to Democrats but the surrounding area is extremely Republican. Just like in Anchorage, Democrats rarely get the margins they need in the city to make up for the sea of red in the nearby rural areas.
The only two other boroughs that cast significant votes are the Kenai Peninsula below Anchorage and then the state capital of Juneau. These areas are mirror images of each other. Juneau is the only sizable Democratic stronghold in the state (Clinton won it by 19 points), while Kenai went to Trump by 37 points.
In all, these five boroughs combined to cast nearly 82% of the statewide vote in 2016. The remainder of the state’s vote is very rural, including many native areas in the far north of the state. These communities generally lean Democratic (while the white rural areas vote Republican) and the ability of candidates to win them is crucial. Rep. Don Young has forged an entire career off of close ties to indigeous communities as a Republican and Murkowski has done the same. Gross has to do very well with these voters to win.
A Democratic win would be a combination of sewing together third-party voters with traditional Democrats, running up the score and hitting previously unthinkable margins in Anchorage, Fairbanks proper, and Juneau, as well as rocking in the native communities. For Republicans it’s the same playbook that has worked in the past: stay competitive in the cities and absolutely massacre Democrats outside the cities, while doing at least passably with Native American voters.
The State of the Race
Stepping outside the granular details of Alaska for a minute, there are large scale factors impacting the race as well. Gross raised $1 million for his campaign in Q1. His Q2 fundraising totals will likely be impressive given the money other Democrats are raising across the country. Gross has a living, breathing campaign, with over $2 million in the bank at the end of last quarter, although that sits well behind Sullivan’s $4.55 million. As for the absence of polling, the only indication we have prior to the upcoming PPP poll is the following excerpt from the Cook Political Report back in mid-June:
“Recent Democratic polling shows the race is tied, with Sullivan not well-defined among voters. The same poll also has Trump and Biden in a statistical dead heat and puts the president’s approval rating slightly underwater. However, Alaska is a state that is notoriously hard to poll and Republicans are, perhaps rightly, skeptical of such numbers. They say their own polling doesn’t worry them in regards to Sullivan, but that they’re taking the race seriously.”
The second line, regarding the presidential race, is the most interesting and surprising part of the quote. That said, Alaska was a 14 point race in 2012 and a 15 point race in 2016, with Trump getting only 51.28% of the vote. It’s not hard to see how in a Biden +10 scenario nationally (which is what current polling averages show), the race could be around Trump +5. Additionally, Civiqs’ approval rating polling shows Trump with a 47% approval rating and a 50% disapproval rating in Alaska. Morning Consult’s approval rating polls haven’t been updated since February but gave him a +5 rating, and his ratings have since slumped nationally. It’s reasonable to assume an update would show him close to even.
A Lack of Polling
Sullivan very well could run a bit ahead of Trump given his incumbency edge and uncontroversial status. But if Gross turns out to be a strong candidate who owns the independent label, the opposite could be true. Perhaps the best argument that Republicans have at this point is polling. If Democratic polling is so good, why haven’t they released an internal poll?
Generally speaking, an internal poll is released to change the narrative about a race. Releasing a tied internal would be an obvious strategy for Democrats right now. That this hasn’t happened may be telling. On the flip side, if Republican polling is strong for Sullivan, a good poll drop could spin the narrative and dissuade Democrats from giving Gross more funding. It could also stop making election geeks raise $5,000 in the middle of the night to poll the race. But that too, hasn’t happened.
So we sit in a strange waiting game, awaiting the upcoming PPP poll to clue us in. It seems likely that the poll will show Sullivan with a lead of some middling amount, but probably under 50% and with some amount of 3rd party/undecided voters. Generally speaking, incumbent Senators don’t lose in presidential years in states that their party’s presidential nominee carries. If Trump wins Alaska as expected, the fundamentals strongly favor Sullivan.
However, strong candidates can run ahead of the partisan baseline, as Jason Kander did in 2016 in Missouri. And so Gross’ quirky campaign makes things moderately interesting. If Trump is only carrying Alaska by 5 to 8 points, it’s conceivable that the Senate race could get tight. Alaska is a total wild card politically, and so it’s an etch-a-sketch, make-your-own-narrative kind of race right now. But in Alaska, nothing is too weird to happen politically.