Palin leads the special election, a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention

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The first results are in in Alaska’s 48-person special election to fill the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s congressional seat. As of 10 p.m. Saturday, the latest results cover 108,981 ballots and pretty solidly cement the four-candidate slate for the special election that will be Alaska’s first-ever ranked-choice election on Aug. 16.

Here’s where the pack stands as of now:

  • Sarah Palin (R) – 29.77%
  • Nick Begich (R) – 19.31%
  • Al Gross (I) – 12.47%
  • Mary Peltola (D) – 7.45%
  • Tara Sweeney (R) – 5.25%
  • Santa Claus (I) – 4.47%
  • Jeff Lowenfels (I) – 3.86%
  • Christopher Constant (D) – 3.5%
  • John Coghill (R) – 2.53%
  • Josh Revak (R) – 2.42%

The most surprising thing about the results is just how surprised everyone is that former Governor Sarah Palin not only finished in the top four but did so with a comfortable lead on everyone else.

It’s a result that ought to serve as a reminder that President Donald Trump’s approval rate in Alaska has hardly budged from the 40% to 45% range in the last few years, a reminder that the cloistered social media worlds we live in are just that. As I wrote in the last edition of Friday in the Sun, the conservative side of the ticket has also been far more focused—with Begich being the establishment’s choice and Palin being the far-right’s choice—than the progressive side that had about six different candidates vying for party support (and none really getting it). She also positioned herself as an outsider from the political establishment—a case that isn’t exactly helped by her status as former governor but was helped by the Alaska Republican Party endorsing Begich prior to its annual convention. It’s a position that takes advantage of the existing and growing splits within the Republican Party, particularly when there were few other such candidates on the ballot (most others leaned centrist).

And, heck, the underlying historical trends of conservative turnout in primary elections appears to be still in place with Republican candidates collectively won about 60% of the vote—which is in line with historic results for primary elections. If this election had been conducted under the traditional system—with parties putting forward their chosen candidates, as is the case for special elections—the party-endorsed Republican (Begich) would almost surely have won it all on Saturday.

That said, the race isn’t fully settled yet—there’s at least another 30,000 ballots to be counted—and the next stage will be completely unprecedented for Alaska.

Just what happens in the ranked-choice general election is prime for wild speculation and no one will really know how it plays out until it plays out. How does support from these 48 candidates coalesce around the final four? How do those votes disperse through stages of the ranked-choice system? How well-informed are voters going to be about the whole system and do they vote strategically?

One thing I’ve seen in polling so far is that voters don’t neatly disperse into the nearest political candidate like you might expect—a hypothetical gubernatorial election, for example, suggests Republican Gov. Dunleavy and independent former Gov. Bill Walker both see pretty significant bumps when Democratic candidate Les Gara is eliminated—so it’s particularly important for candidates to not take second- and third-place rankings for granted.

Anyway, there’s plenty of time for rampant and irresponsible speculating on the race but it’s also important to remember that whoever wins this election will only have the seat for four months.

After all, just how much trouble can a single member of Congress get up to in four months? (A lot.)

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