The Real Takeaway From The Alaska Presidential Primary

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Last night the Alaska Republican Party held their Presidential Preference Poll or PPP for short. The popular narrative spun today and being reported by the media was how blockbuster the turnout and raucous enthusiasm was among Republicans. But was that really the case?

Presidential Preference Poll, a cumbersome title for what most of us would more easily term a primary. Voters went to places and cast ballots on who their party should nominate. That’s a primary, right? Well, no, the party very specifically doesn’t call what they do a primary because they want to draw a distinction, however subliminal, between their largely volunteer administered poll and official state run elections.

That difference may seem semantic at best to the casual observer, but there are real consequences to Alaska conducting their Presidential primaries as wholly party driven affairs without state involvement. What happened yesterday was more akin to a caucus… in a box.

Take for instance this passage quoting Party Chairman Peter Goldberg in this morning’s Alaska Dispatch News:

“Alaskans formed long lines at polling places around the state to cast votes for the Republican nominee for president, with some registering as Republicans on the spot. Late Tuesday night, Peter Goldberg, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said party officials were “amazed” at the turnout, which prompted the printing of additional ballots and voter registration materials.”

The message is “Wow, turnout exploded last night!!!. Lines were long and enthusiasm among Republicans was through the roof.”

The Republican Party is quick to point out that the 22,000 people who voted in this year’s PPP is far greater than the 15,000 in 2012 or the almost 14,000 in 2008. Wow, a 50% increase!!! That’s amazing…

Think about this though, according to the Alaska Division of Elections there are currently 136,229 registered Republican voters in Alaska. That means yesterday’s PPP saw a Republican voter turnout of 16.1%. That is not only lower turnout than any recent statewide elections, it’s even far lower than any recent- Anchorage municipal election.  

To be fair to state and municipal elections we have to take this a step further. Peter Goldberg told me on the Glen Biegel show on Monday that folks could register to vote at the polling locations and he expected to see plenty of Democrats changing their party affiliation to Republican so they could vote in the PPP. The party narrative is “these elections are, or at least can be, open to everyone.” If we take the party at their logic then we should compare voter turnout among all registered voters. When those numbers are crunched, the total voter turnout for the 2016 Alaska Republican Party PPP was a whopping 4.3%.

That is right, only 4.3% of registered voters in Alaska voted yesterday. That is compared with 56% turnout, or 285,449 who voted in our last statewide regular elections. 22,000 vs. 285,000 kind of changes the narrative, don’t you think?

But what about those long lines at the polling places. That means there was monster enthusiasm, right? Think about this, if you were one of the few who actually voted yesterday your polling location line probably looked something like this one in Midtown Anchorage where I voted.

IMG_0262

When I voted, around 4:30, there were between 20-40 people engaged in some level of the voting process at that location.

The thing is, that location was the singular polling place for everyone voting in state house districts 17-20. Do you know how many normal voting precincts that covers? 32. That one polling location for the Alaska GOP Presidential Preference Poll represented 32 voting locations in regular elections.

That wasn’t unique to this location. East Anchorage, Mat-Su, Eagle River, just about everywhere in the state had merged voting locations representing several districts.

The point is not that they should have had a polling location in every precinct, but this, when judging the turnout anecdotally by lines at the polling locations, in order to get an apples-to-apples comparison against normal elections you have to ask yourself if the lines you saw were 25-35 times the size of the lines you would normally see at your polling place.

The fact is they simply weren’t even close to that massive.

Here is another riddle to behold, where were the enthusiastic election revelers? The Alaska Republican Party set up an election central at The Lofts hotel in downtown Anchorage where the excited masses could come and watch the results roll in. I myself have found, if blurred memories of the election night parties of Frank Murkowski, Ted Stevens, and Mayors Dan Sullivan and Ethan Berkowitz.  These events can be awesome for political junkies and campaign faithful.

Here is what such events have looked like for Republicans Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski.

141104ElectionDay_SullivanParty02eMurkowskiNight12.86548.original.source.prod_affiliate.7

Here is what last night’s Alaska GOP event looked like.

IMG_0266 (1)

If there was so much Republican enthusiasm, why did only 20 or so press and party insiders show up to rock the room as results came in? And if they weren’t at the Lofts, then where were they? As far as I can tell there was no Cruz party, or Trump party, or Rubio party. So if we are to claim such enthusiasm, where exactly was this it expressed?

The truth no one in the political process wants to admit is Alaska’s PPP doesn’t give you any strong indication of who the average Alaskan supports, who the average Republican supports, and how enthusiastic they actually are. How could they with only 4.3% voting?

The first response many might have is people had the opportunity to vote and if they didn’t it’s their fault. To counter that let me just list some of the places that DID NOT have voting locations in yesterday’s PPP: JBER, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Metlakatla, Petersburg, Seldovia, Seward, Cooper Landing, Girdwood, Cantwell, Eielson, Tok, Healy, Chitina, and Fort Yukon. Those areas, and the many not listed represent not hundreds, but thousands of registered Republican voters who had no chance to vote yesterday.

And even in those areas where there were voting locations voters faced very restricted hours the polls were open (3-8 PM) and no absentee or early vote options for non-military voters. It is no wonder we got an abysmal 4.3% turnout.   

Here are two more fun facts for you. Ted Cruz “won” Alaska by just 637 votes. The total number of Alaska Republican voters who DID NOT vote yesterday is 116,229. I don’t think it should be hard to sell you on the idea that if the turnout had been increased to just one third of Republicans, or another 20,000 votes, the result could easily have been massively different.

I know this is going to sound like heresy given the times we Alaskans find ourselves, but there is a real public good argument to be made that its time the state of Alaska ran the presidential primaries. They already run the Republican primaries for U.S. Senate, Governor, and other offices, so President wouldn’t be an unprecedented change.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m criticizing the Alaska Republican Party’s effort in the PPP. They and their statewide network of volunteers did an admirable job of earnestly trying to provide Republicans across the state with the ability to participate. The realities of this kind of an election in the biggest and most diffusely populated state in the Union are simply beyond the capacity of a meekly funded volunteer effort. The state knows how to do this and has the resources to do it, why not let them?

Yes, it would cost money to have the state run this election and the state is short on that these days, but given how much winning any state can change the dynamics of the Presidential race and go a long way to deciding who our next Commander-in-Chief is, don’t we owe it to ourselves and our fellow Alaska Republicans to ensure that ALL of us have every opportunity to vote and be heard?

If we don’t, shouldn’t we at least stop lying to our fellow party members by pretending the chosen few who did have the opportunity and took the effort to vote represent the will of us all?

8 Comments on "The Real Takeaway From The Alaska Presidential Primary"

  1. How many people saw the crowds and turned away? I went to the Nazarene Church on Jewel Lake and it was a mob scene, several hundred there. This was the line at Palmer:

    • This was my polling place at 5, line went through doors up ahead to the left and into a crowded auditorium. Took me 30 mins to vote, never took that long for any other election. That’s Natasha Von Imhof up ahead in black next to the lady in the white sweater, she was helping people find their districts. Saw one Independent turn around, did not want to register R. Saw no one register, all had IDs out and were prepared.

  2. Casey Reynolds | March 2, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Reply

    That is true, I’ve heard lots of stories of people leaving for various reasons, the lines were too long, they didn’t want to fill out the ino page, etc. But trust me the number of people who turned around and went home this time was nothing compared to 2008 when it was like -5 outside. I personally saw dozens of people pull in into the Reagan building parking lot, see the line and then pull out again.

  3. Casey Reynolds | March 2, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Reply

    Also, these lines bolster my point. The reason they were so long wasn’t because so many people were voting. Turnout was way, way, way lower than a typical election. The reason there wer lines was because dozens of precincts were combined into one location and the polls were open for only half the time of normal elections. That forced everyone from large swaths of territory to vote at the same place at the same time, so even with far lower turnouts you get far larger lines.

  4. so im not sure if i feel like its been answered as to why they do this, especially since the state holds normal primaries for other offices. when i saw the numbers coming in on the news regarding which candidate won, i was blown away at how low they are and assumed something must be off.. turns out its the whole voting system that’s off. I assume when it comes time for the actual election there will be hundreds of thousands turning out, plenty of polling places etc? why do this? is it just bad leadership?

  5. Bruce Botelho | March 2, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Reply

    The reason for the Presidential preferential or party caucus mechanisms in Alaska is because our state primaries invariably occur AFTER the national party conventions when Presidential candidates are selected. The state could, of course, move its primaries to the Spring, but who could endure eight or nine months of general election campaigning for state office?

  6. Save our money now for something more useful than this effort (like saving it). Eventually Alaskans are going to realize we don’t impact the national scene (even any longer in oil production). We only count when something like the balance of the US Senate is an issue. Whole regions of Alaska didn’t get to participate in this party primary and I object to pissing money into an attempt to judge the desires of the the Republicans (or Democrats) in Kwethluk or Tok regarding the national party. Alaska has a population (700,000) about the same as Memphis Tennessee.. If this number of people is so important why not ask the state of Tennessee to pay for a separate Republican Presidential Primary for Memphis only?

  7. As you take pains to demonstrate herein, if you’re actually capable of objective critical thinking, why would you ever continue to support Republican politicians or policies?

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