Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some interesting dynamics at work in the #AKgov race ...

While Amanda Coyne and others in the past have rightfully cautioned against putting too much weight on Alaska polls conducted by Public Policy Polling, there are a couple of interesting results in PPP's latest, released yesterday, that have me intrigued.  The results are the responses to Questions 8 and 9, which are as follows:

The thing that intrigues me is the shift that occurs when the two third-party candidates for Governor are eliminated from the survey and those that otherwise are intending to vote for them essentially are asked to reallocate their vote between the incumbent and Bill Walker.  Tellingly, Walker's lead over the incumbent goes from 1% to 4%, apparently because of the movement of a significant portion of the third-party voters going to Walker.

Of course, neither of the third-party candidates are expected to drop out of the race before the election.  But the numbers nevertheless are intriguing to me because I remember well the 1992 Presidential election, when Ross Perot played a similar, albeit larger, role as a third party candidate.  Polls conducted early in the race put Perot at somewhat significant numbers.  Those dwindled, however, as the election date came closer and voters became concerned that, in a plurality take all contest, casting a vote for Perot instead of one of the top two candidates left the voter out of the decisionmaking process.  The result was a significant movement in the final weeks away from Perot and toward one of the other two, leading candidates.

But those voters took their issues with them and broke surprisingly strong toward the end for Bill Clinton as he increasingly warmed to the budget issues that had propelled the rise of Perot (and George Bush did not).  

Of course, those favoring the Alaska third-party candidates in the current poll are concerned about a number of issues, and some of their supporters are so firmly committed to the cause that it is unlikely they will be swayed to vote for one of the two frontrunners even toward the end.

But from all appearances at this point this election is going to remain close to the end and both of the frontrunners will be looking for every vote they can.  As they contemplate strategies on how to attract some voters away from the two third party candidates it will be important to remember that, like Perot before them, both third party candidates have put budget issues -- and specifically, achieving a sustainable budget -- at the center of their agenda.  See, e.g., "A Statement on Alaska's Future," by J. R. Myers, the Alaska Constitution Party candidate, and "Top Three Concerns for Alaska," by Care Clift, the Alaska Libertarian Party candidate.

Looking back on the 1992 election over time, I have come to realize that there are a number of ways for third party candidates to become successful.  One, like Angus King in Maine, is to be elected.  But a second, lesser preferred, but nevertheless good outcome is to have your issue become the defining one of the election.

A few years after the 1992 election, noted Presidential historian Michael Beschloss had this to say about Ross Perot's run:
“[Perot] was the first candidate really in a big way to float the idea that the deficit was a bad thing .... By the time Bill Clinton was elected that fall, if he had not done something about the deficit he would have been in big trouble and that was largely Ross Perot’s doing.”
In short, even though he wasn't elected, by running Perot put "the federal budget deficit, an issue previously ignored in elections," on the map, and made it "a major part of almost every presidential campaign since."

Care Clift and J.R. Myers are doing the same thing with budget issues in Alaska.  As the PPP poll indicates, the race is shaping up to be tight, with undecideds and third party voters positioned to play a major role.  In an effort to attract those voters both major candidates are going to have to deal with the issues that have propelled support for the third party candidates, and more than anything else those relate to the state budget.  As in 1992 at a national level, by the time this is over the winning candidate may well be the one that has articulated the best plan going forward for securing Alaska's fiscal future.

And that will be the result of Care Clift and J.R. Myers doing what they are doing now -- pressing the issue and continuing to give voters an alternative if the two frontrunners don't step forward with their own solution.  Even if they don't ultimately win the election, as Perot's in 1992 their campaign will have succeeded by creating an environment in which the winner will be in "big trouble" if he doesn't do something about state fiscal issues.