JONATHAN CHAIT NOVEMBER 1, 2010
Over the weekend, leading Republicans have expressed concern over Tea Party favorite Joe Miller's collapse in Alaska, even going so far as to express tacit support for Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign to stave off a win by Democrat Scott McAdamas. But now in the latest poll, Miller is ahead, 37-30-30.
What's crazy is that this is happening despite Miller's utter rejection by the electorate, and despite McAdams being the most popular candidate of the three by far:
Miller is winning despite having the worst personal favorability numbers of the three candidates. Only 36% have a positive opinion of him while 59% view him in a negative light. McAdams is by far the most popular with 50% rating him favorably to only 30% with an unfavorable one. Voters aren't very enamored with Murkowski either, giving her a 37/53 approval rating.
How can McAdams be so much more popular than Miller yet still be trailing the race? It's because 92% of the small group of voters that does like Miller is planning to vote for him. But only 56% of the voters with a positive opinion of McAdams are intending to cast their ballots for him, while 31% of them are going for Lisa Murkowski.
There are so many dynamics in play that it's impossible to guess who will win. Alaska can be difficult to poll because it's not part of the United States (Just look at a map: boxes in the corner don't count.) Layered on top of that is the added difficulty of polling a write-in candidate. And on top of that is the further difficulty of guessing how many voters who do write in Murkowski will have their ballots accepted. And on top of that is the three-dimensional chess of a multi-candidate race, where voters have to game out which of their top two choices has the best chance to win. Moderate Republicans have to tactically choose between Miller and Murkowski. (Stop McAdams!) Moderate Democrats have to tactically choose between McAdamas and Murkowski. (Stop Miller!) Any last minute polls or news could send one or both of those groups stampeding in one direction or another.
At this point, three outcomes appear about equally possible, and they're all pretty crazy: Either the one candidate in the race who voters despise, Miller, wins, or else a mildly unpopular candidate who's off the ballot wins, or else a heavily Republican state in a heavily Republican year elects a largely unknown Democrat. Crazy!
Meanwhile, the race is another good example of the superiority of instant-runoff voting, which is good at preventing outcomes like the election of a candidate despised by a strong majority of the electorate.