Democratic Gold in Alaska?

As Nate Silver noted yesterday, what’s been so weird about this year’s struggle for control of the Senate is that a relatively constant, small Republican advantage in the overall battle has hidden wild instability in the states trending this way or that.

And so, just as Republicans began to think they’d pretty much nailed down the Senate with strong leads in AK, CO, IA, LA, AR and SD, things started coming unglued again. The latest state to drift out of sure Red territory is Alaska, per this report from The Upshot‘s Nate Cohn:

Kansas, Georgia, South Dakota. We have cycled through a lot of wild-card red states over the last month in surveying the landscape of competitive Senate races. But the most likely wild card might be the one we always expected: Alaska.

Recent polls suggest that Mark Begich, the Democratic senator, has made gains over recent weeks. The new polls, the first to show Mr. Begich ahead in more than a month, add considerable uncertainty to a race in a state that has a history of inaccurate polling. But even if Mr. Begich does not lead, he is most likely within striking distance, especially given the unusually robust Democratic turnout effort that is taking place.

The state fell off the radar over the last few weeks because just about every unsponsored survey was showing Dan Sullivan, the Republican, in the lead. But over the last few days, two Alaska-based pollsters have shown Mr. Begich with a substantial lead.

On Friday, Hellenthal and Associates, a Republican-leaning Alaska-based firm, showed Mr. Begich ahead by a 10-point margin. Mr. Sullivan led by 4.5 points in the last Hellenthal poll, conducted in mid-September….

Then, on Monday evening, Ivan Moore Research showed Mr. Begich ahead by a modest margin. The poll offered two results, one with a loose and one with a tight likely voter screen. Mr. Begich led by seven points among fairly likely voters, and led by eight points among the most likely voters.

Cohn goes on to discuss the shortcomings of these polls, and some contrary evidence. But he concludes by noting that Begich could outperform even the recently improved expectations:

If any Democrat should have a superior turnout effort, it’s Mr. Begich. The Democrats have invested near the point of diminishing returns.

My colleague Derek Willis reported last month that Democratic campaigns and aligned groups were outspending Republicans by an 8-to-1 margin on field operations in Alaska. Democrats there were spending nearly nine times as much per capita as Democrats in North Carolina. Sasha Issenberg reported in The New Republic that Democrats would have 130 staff workers in Alaska, or one for every 3,000 Alaskans who voted in 2012. The most recent New York Times/CBS News/YouGov poll found that a staggering 43 percent of registered voters said they had been contacted by the Begich campaign.

Because Alaska’s population is no larger than the average congressional district, a startlingly small number of voters are enough to swing control of the Senate. Just 7,500 voters would be enough to overcome a three-point deficit.

Unless Dan Sullivan engineers a late surge, we may not know what’s happened in Alaska, notorious for slow counts, until days after November 3. Add that to the probable runoffs in GA and LA and there’s still good reason to think Republicans would be wise not to lay in too much champagne for next Tuesday night.

UPDATE: Harry Enten and Nate Silver weigh in at FiveThirtyEight, adding to the discussion some evidence that Alaska polling has routinely overestimated Democratic prospects. But they, too, suggest nobody knows what’s going to happen there.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.