Would Palin have won if Alaska had held a traditional election?

Source: Hot Air

It seems fitting — and weird — that Sarah Palin is in the news on my next-to-last day at Hot Air. She was the most influential populist in the GOP for the first half of this site’s existence before retreating from politics and being replaced by … a darker figure. Now here she is, helping to send me off.

And true to populist form, she’s complaining about unfairness.

Ed’s points in this morning’s post are well taken but some of the whining on social media about last night’s result is out of control.

Tom, if you think it’s unfair when the party with the most votes loses a House election, I know some Hillary Clinton fans who’d like a word. Had a relatively small number of votes in several swing states gone the other way in 2020, Joe Biden would have lost the presidency despite having won more than 50 percent of the popular vote. This is a strange moment for the GOP to suddenly find religion about majority rule.

Also, since when do parties win elections rather than individual candidates? Ed noted correctly that Palin lost only because a freakishly large number of Nick Begich’s Republican voters made the Democrat their second choice over her or refused to list a second choice at all. A generic Republican almost certainly would have been the second preferences of most of those voters, producing an easy victory yesterday. Unpopular candidates tend to leave otherwise gettable votes on the table. That’s another lesson you would think the GOP might have internalized in the Trump era.

I find myself underwhelmed by Cotton’s claim that ranked-choice voting is “convoluted.” Ask a five-year-old to rank her three favorite flavors of ice cream in order and she’ll have no difficulty with the concept. Palin didn’t lose because Alaskans are too stupid to denote their own preferences, she lost because even many Republicans up there dislike her for quitting as governor in 2009 and then remaking herself as a national celebrity, political and otherwise. To quote my pal Karl, “Alaska elected Lisa Murkowski as a write-in candidate over a Tea Party candidate. They know how to express a preference.”

There’s something to the argument that the longer a ranked-choice ballot is, the harder the system is to justify. No election should be decided by how voters rank their ninth and tenth choices. But a three-way race? Americans are used to those. And as others have pointed out, at no point in this race did Palin lead. She trailed Democrat Mary Peltola by eight points after the first round and ended up losing by a bit more than three. There’s every reason to believe that if Alaska had followed a traditional system this year — party primaries, then a general election between the nominees — Palin might have lost that too. The Begich voters who made Peltola their second choice last night might have crossed over to vote for her in the general. And the Begich voters who declined to name a second choice, presumably because they couldn’t stomach voting for Palin, might have stayed home.

Peltola and Begich each have more reason to complain about the current system than Palin does. Peltola would have won comfortably in a traditional first-past-the-post election based on the results of the first round, thanks to Palin and Begich splitting the Republican majority. Instead she had to sweat out a narrow victory last night. And Begich probably would have won if the final round involved a “round robin” process instead of ranked-choice voting. Head to head with Peltola, Begich likely wins because Palin’s Trumpy fan base will take practically any Republican over a Democrat. (A poll of Alaska published last month confirms that.) Head to head with Palin, Begich also certainly wins because Democratic voters would cross over to vote for him in the interest of keeping a figure they hate out of office.

What decided the outcome in this election wasn’t ranked-choice voting or even the jungle primary format, it was the decision of Democrat Al Gross to drop out of the race. Gross finished among the top four with Peltola, Palin, and Begich and would have appeared on yesterday’s ballot — but he withdrew in June and threw his support to Peltola, consolidating Democrats behind her. If Gross had insisted on staying in, he and Peltola likely would have split the 40 percent of first-choice votes that were cast for her. And that would have left them in third and fourth place behind Palin and Begich. That means the election would have come down to the two Republicans, not to Peltola and Palin. And as I said, Begich probably would have won that match-up because he more Democratic and independent voters would have preferred him to her.

I remember Trump doing an interview shortly after he won the 2016 election and being asked if he thought the U.S. should shift from the electoral college to having the national popular vote decide the presidency. I’d be fine with that, he said. Surprised, the interviewer reminded him that he had lost the popular vote to Clinton. To which Trump responded with a smart point: He would have campaigned differently, in different parts of the country, if the rules had been changed before the campaign. You can’t assume that he wouldn’t have won the popular vote when he wasn’t trying, first and foremost, to win the popular vote.

Candidates adapt their strategies to the rules of the election in which they’re running — or at least they should. If you’re running in a ranked-choice system, attacking other candidates from the same party as you’d do in a traditional party primary is stupid. And yet:

Palin should have worked harder to woo Begich voters, especially since he was running as the Not Palin conservative alternative in the race. By sparring with him, she risked alienating some of his voters who might have otherwise ranked her second instead of third. Luckily, she has another chance to win this seat in two months. Maybe she’ll learn.

I’ll leave you with the thought below. Ranked-choice voting systems have their vices, as all systems do. But they also have their virtues.