Election 2008

Al Grillo/AP
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska

Ted Stevens’ Rebound from Polls Leaves Observers Puzzled

November 07, 2008 08:58 AM
by Josh Katz
Sen. Stevens could be headed for re-election despite polls that showed him far behind. Struggling to explain the discrepancy, analysts wonder about a “Stevens Effect.”

Stevens Defies Polls

Ted Stevens’ potential victory in Alaska has puzzled many observers. He is now approximately 3,500 votes ahead of his Democratic opponent, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich, a 1.5 percent lead. However, there are still at least 40,000 absentee votes, 9,000 early voting ballots, and an unclear number of questionable ballots remaining, according to FiveThirtyEight. As a result, the winner may not be announced for weeks.

Sen. Stevens could very well become the first U.S. senator ever re-elected to his post after being convicted of a felony. A federal court found Stevens guilty of seven counts of corruption on Oct. 27 for failing to disclose gifts he had received.

The trial and the conviction appeared to hammer Stevens in the polls, setting up Begich for a landslide victory. Last week, Begich was leading by 22 points. The drastic turnaround has shocked many onlookers, and has cast doubt on the reliability of polling.

Opinion does not change that much that quickly,” said Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore, according to The Washington Independent. “Clearly, weird [stuff] was going on.”

Some have argued that a possible strain of the Bradley Effect was at work in Alaska. The Bradley Effect—which is now considered outdated after Obama’s victory—speculates that voters tell pollsters they have no qualms voting for a black person, but have a change of heart once they are in the voting booth. Perhaps in Stevens’ case, some Alaskans were hesitant to admit to pollsters that they would support for a convicted felon, but then voted for the Republican incumbent anyway.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who was also investigated for his relationship to the same oil company that Stevens was involved with, held onto his House seat on Tuesday in similarly surprising fashion. Last week, polls had him losing by about nine points, but he won by eight points on Election Day.

Opinion & Analysis: Why would Alaskans vote for a felon?; possibility of Senate expulsion

Nate Silver of Web site FiveThirtyEight claims that a likely reason for the voting discrepancy is “that the Democratic vote became complacent and did not bother to turn out,” believing that Begich had the election won. However, he notes that Begich may still come out on top once the outstanding votes are tallied.

But, according to The Washington Independent, it is not surprising that Alaskans are averse to parting with their senator. Stevens has served in the Senate longer than any Republican, and he has used his sway to obtain much in federal money for his state. Many Alaskans credit Stevens with garnering federal dollars for infrastructure and giving the citizens tax breaks. That is why a version of the Bradley Effect is possible, The Washington Independent reports: when citizens made it to the polls, his felony charges may not have been the most important thing on their minds.
Time magazine provides a number of reasons for Stevens’ surprise Election Day performance. For example, Alaskans trust their senator for the reasons mentioned by The Washington Independent, and they might have accepted Stevens’ argument that he had “not been convicted of anything.” The trial occurred far away from Alaska in Washington, D.C., and was “a noxious mix of prosecutorial misconduct and a runaway jury,” according to Nathan Thornburgh of Time.

Thornburgh also blames Begich, arguing that he did not focus as much attention on Stevens’ improprieties as he should have. But he provides a “simpler reason” for the election results, as well. In an online video debate, Stevens stressed the fact that he was a Republican. “The subtext was: Vote for me, and in the worst-case scenario, you can vote for another Republican in a special election if I step down,” according to Thornburgh. The heavily Republican state of Alaska may have gotten that message.

John McCormack of the conservative Weekly Standard expresses a similar point: “If you’re somewhat concerned that Stevens will continue to tarnish the Republican brand, take heart in the fact that Sarah Palin would be able to appoint his replacement when the Senate kicks him out.” But in an update, McCormack notes that a special election could be held prior to an appointment by the governor.

If Stevens holds on to his seat, The New York Times says that the Senate should waste no time kicking him out: “the oft-invoked dignity of the Senate is at stake. Any lawyerly razzmatazz can only compound Republican chagrin,” the Times writes. “A timely place for the Senate to defend its honor would be the lame-duck session starting Nov. 17.”

For the Senate to expel Stevens, it would need a two-thirds vote. The body has voted to remove 15 senators in the past, 14 for joining the Confederacy during the Civil War. Rick Hasen of the Election Law Blog claims that the Senate would probably expel Stevens, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid has said he would support such action. But he also quotes a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report to explain why Congress might be wary of expulsion: “The Senate … has expressed reticence to exercise the power of expulsion (but not censure) for conduct in a prior Congress when a Senator has been elected or reelected to the Senate after the Member’s conviction, when the electorate knew of the misconduct and still sent the Member to the Senate. … [It] appears to reflect the deference traditionally paid in our heritage to the popular will and election choice of the people. The authority to expel would thus be used cautiously when the institution of Congress might be seen as usurping or supplanting its own institutional judgment for the judgment of the electorate.”

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