Sarah Palin, Ranked Choice Voting, and the Perils of N=1 Analysis

More details from the Alaska special election.

“Sarah Pailn” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

WaPo’s Aaron Blake looks at the data and declares “It’s official: Sarah Palin cost the GOP a House seat.”

Sarah Palin has made no secret since her loss in the Alaska special congressional election last week that she doesn’t appreciate the state’s new ranked-choice voting system, which she and other prominent conservatives have blamed for her loss.

They should blame Sarah Palin.

Whatever you think about ranked-choice voting, one of its benefits is that it can show you just how good each candidate was at appealing to the broader electorate — the stated purpose of the system. And new data confirms something that seemed pretty evident last week: Palin cost her party a House seat it otherwise very likely would have won.

But how could that be? Doesn’t RCV result in the most popular candidate winning? It turns out, not necessarily.

The state Division of Elections has put out new data on how the election went down. And the data suggest that the other Republican in the race, Nick Begich, would have defeated Rep.-elect Mary Peltola (D) if the race had boiled down to the two of them.

Under the state’s system, Begich was eliminated when he finished in third place. That meant his voters who ranked the remaining two candidates below Begich saw their votes distributed to their second choice. Palin won about half of those voters, while Peltola won 28 percent of them (with the rest not ranking either of them). But it wasn’t enough: Peltola led by enough on first-choice votes that she defeated Palin by about three points.

In doing so, a Democrat won a seat that had gone for Donald Trump by 10 points in the 2020 election.

Under our normal system—a Republican and Democratic primary, followed by a general election in which those two candidates and maybe some also-rans compete for the most votes—the Republican nominee, whether Begich or Palin, would almost certainly have won. But, in this scenario, a significant number of Begich voters preferred the Democrat to Palin.

But, of course, we already knew that. Here’s the new information:

Begich, it appears, would not have suffered the same fate in a scenario in which Palin had been eliminated instead. According to a review by FairVote, 59 percent of Palin’s voters would have gone to Begich, while just 6 percent would’ve gone to Peltola — far less than the 28 percent of Begich-first voters who crossed the aisle.

Given Peltola took about 40 percent of first-choice voters and Begich took about 28 percent, that would mean Begich would have surpassed her with relative ease once the second-choice ballots were counted. He would have won by about five points, compared with Palin’s three-point loss.

Vastly more Begich voters disliked Palin, it seems, than vice-versa.

Now, on the one hand, this is exactly how RCV is supposed to work. Citizens no longer have to strategically decide between voting their preference, which may well mean “wasting” their vote if it’s for the 3rd place or lower candidate, or voting the lesser of two evils.

To take famous examples, those who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, Ralph Nader in 2000, or Jill Green in 2016 could have indicated whether they preferred George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton; George W. Bush or Al Gore; or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Having that option and having a majority winner rather than a plurality winner may well have changed the outcome in at least two of those races, the weirdness of the Electoral College notwithstanding.

This all serves to reinforce two long-running arguments Steven (especially) and I have been trying to advance over the years.

1. Rules matter. There’s no “right” way to structure an election among multiple candidates. Any set of rules could potentially change the outcome unless a majority support a single candidate.

2. Don’t draw broad conclusions from single contests. Sarah Palin is a uniquely polarizing candidate. And, while very much a reliable Republican state, Alaska isn’t a typical Republican state. While it has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968 (inclusive), it has mostly done so by a small margin. And non-major party candidates typically get a significantly higher percentage of the vote than they do in most states.

I sincerely hope that we’ve turned the tide and we’re about to see a backlash against extremists, nutjobs, charlatans, and others unfit to govern. There’s a least some evidence for that in the broader polling trends. Maybe Palin’s defeat here is a harbinger of that. But it’s simply too soon to tell and one contest—let alone a low-turnout special election using voting rules that the citizenry and parties aren’t used to—just doesn’t provide much information.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, Comparative Democracies, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    Palin is now demanding that Begich drop out of the race.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: What race? The election is over.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well one thing it highlights is that a considerable fraction of R voters are unhappy with Palin. Probably they are unhappy with how she resigned the governorship, I would think.

  4. @James Joyner: I am guessing (because I haven’t seen what CSK is referring to) the November general election for the full term.

  5. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    Palin and Begich will face Peltola in the November election.

  6. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    It’s in the WaPo and USA Today as well as on CBS.

  7. KM says:

    @James Joyner:
    “Race” here meaning “go away and give me the office.” Loomer’s doing the sane thing. It’s the logic extension of election fraud- since you can’t lose without them having cheated, they should just give up when they win since you would have won otherwise. Demanding someone drop out of “the race” doesn’t need to make sense as the implict argument is the opponent never deserves office and needs to hand it over to its Rightful owner.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: Divine Right of Kings, Part II.

  9. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    For a plain-spoken woman of the people, Palin seems to have a highly developed sense of entitlement. “Shove off, Begich; this is MY seat in the House.”

  10. smitty says:

    “Rules matter”

    And the rules will be elaborated until the become a software EULA if that’s what it takes to render elections pro forma.

    KISS. Down with RCV.

  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    It occurred to me that RCV also takes “election fraud” theater…away from Republicans

    Which is why Florida and Tennessee have banned it.

    Its bad for the business of division-fueled fundraising and turnout

  12. Gustopher says:

    Under our normal system—a Republican and Democratic primary, followed by a general election in which those two candidates and maybe some also-rans compete for the most votes—the Republican nominee, whether Begich or Palin, would almost certainly have won. But, in this scenario, a significant number of Begich voters preferred the Democrat to Palin.

    The numbers don’t bear out the conclusion that a Republican would have won the seat.

    The Republican primary would have resulted in Palin as a candidate, who is toxic enough that a lot of the people who voted for Begich in the primary would have then stayed home or voted for Peltola.

    (Assuming that everyone would have voted the same way as their RCV ballots, and that the smaller GOP primary electorate was a random subset of the special election voters… they likely would have skewed further right, presumably more towards Palin)

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    The message to the voters from Alaska GOP needs to be “keep voting ‘R’.” The Republicans lost because however many voters voted “D” on the second round and ~12000 (working from memory) essentially said “Begich or the highway” by not ranking a second choice at all.

    Congratulations “my way or the highway” voters! You won! You got the highway.

  14. Kylopod says:

    While it has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968 (inclusive), it has mostly done so by a small margin.

    No. It’s been consistently by double digit margins with the sole exception of the anomalous three-way race of 1992 when Bush won 39-30 with Perot very nearly beating Clinton for second place.

    Apart from that one race, though, Biden’s 10-point loss was the narrowest since the 1960s, so it’s arguably showing signs of trending blue without actually becoming competitive (not yet anyway), at least at the presidential level.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: you are ascribing a motivation to the undervotes that may not be accurate.

    “My Way Or The Highway” is a rather strident motivations. “I Won’t Vote For Palin”, “Leave Me Alone, I Already Voted”, “I Don’t Understand The Ballot” and “Fuck It” are all equally valid interpretations.

  16. Kathy says:

    People tend to judge rules, and more significantly rule changes, according to how they make out under them.

    So, you change sudden death overtime to the current rules, and teams who win after letting the other team have the ball first will say its great. Those who lose will say it’s awful. We’ve seen the same with instant replay, the tuck rule, and so many more.

    Thing is one instance proves nothing. A fair rule will lead to roughly equal outcomes between two sides over time.

    We get a chance to see a rematch in Alaska in only a couple of months. Maybe we’ll get the same results with the same candidates. Maybe the candidates will differ. Maybe some voters will be more inclined to list a second choice.

    at that, two instance also prove nothing. Flip a coin twice, and you may get tails twice. This does not mean an infinity of coin flips will yield infinite tails.

  17. Ken_L says:

    If they have any sense at all, the parties will soon ensure that only one candidate can contest an RCV election. In the Alaskan case, Begich should have withdrawn so Republicans could (a) campaign hard for Palin, and (b) urge supporters to rank Pletola #4. It’s a different electoral game which I expect they’ll learn pretty quickly.