What the What Is Going On With Senate Polling in Alaska?

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Trying to keep up with the Alaska Senate race can induce recurrent cases of whiplash. When incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski first entered the race as a Republican write-in candidate in September, she trailed official GOP nominee Joe Miller by as much as 25 points in one poll. In the month of October, however, she made steady gains, and a recent string of polls has shown her leading the race by anywhere from five to 16 points.

Miller, meanwhile, has hit a series of stumbling blocks, and ABC reported over the weekend that the national Republican establishment had given up on him, using their ads to hammer Democratic candidate Scott McAdams in the hopes that Murkowski would continue to caucus with Republicans (as she has said she will) if she wins.

Yet a new survey released yesterday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratically aligned firm, shows Miller seven points ahead and Murkowski and McAdams tied.

What's going on here?

First of all, Alaska is known for scattered and unreliable polling. In 2008, pollsters overwhelming showed Republican Congressman Don Young trailing to Democrat Ethan Berkowitz. But Young won re-election, as he has since he first assumed office in 1973. And of course Miller's victory in the August primary surprised many observers, since the little public polling that had been conducted showed Murkowski solidly ahead.   

What makes this race even harder to quantify, though, is the presence of a viable write-in candidate. Polls that supply respondents with Murkowski's name give her an extra boost, since in reality voters will, of course, have to write it in. But polls that offer a choice between Miller, McAdams, and "write-in" are not entirely straightforward, either, since there are hundreds of other write-in candidates registered in the race.

Prognosticators aren't quite sure what to do with this race, either. The Cook Political report leans toward Murkowski but is leaving its options open:

While it's easy to understand why Democrats see an opening in this fight, it's a lot harder to see voters in bright red Alaska supporting a Democrat in a very Republican year. That said, weirder things have happened this cycle.

We increasingly believe that Murkowski, propelled by a healthy war chest, name identification and buyer's remorse, is well positioned to win this race. As is true with most three-way contests, there is enormous potential for unpredictability here.

While the Rothenberg Political Report also gives Murkowski the edge, it recently shifted the Alaska race from "Currently Safe" to "Republican Favored," reflecting improved odds for McAdams.

On his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times, meanwhile, Nate Silver is placing his bet on Miller. He gives the Republican nominee a 68.5 percent chance of winning, with Murkowski and McAdams trailing far behind at 26.1 and 5.5 percent, respectively--and this is before Silver has factored the new PPP poll into his model.

Bottom line: watch the returns (and keep watching for the next two weeks as the state counts its absentee and provisional ballots). This race is likely to be close, and it quite possibly could end up in court.       

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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