ANCHORAGE, Alaska — With the general election looming, many people want to take the temperature of Alaska's political waters. Three polls are out on Alaska's U.S. Senate race -- all with different results.
In the next month, we'll be flooded with lots of poll results. The question is, will they really help us predict the outcome?
At the Terra Bella café in South Anchorage, customers ponder the polls for clues, much like fortune tellers examine tea leaves.
“Elections are a popularity contest in a lot of ways," said Holland Roofing Co. owner Michelle Holland. "People are voting based on their belief systems, what they see in the media, what they feel and name recognition.”
Polls are how we take the pulse of what Alaskans are thinking.
A CNN poll of 1,500 likely voters shows Republican nominee Joe Miller out in front with a slight lead -- but another poll from Craciun Research, with a sample of 300 likely voters, shows write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski with a 11 percent lead over Miller.
Pollster Dave Dittman is also working on a poll, and says his will probably have different results.
“They're all over the place because of the different methodologies,” Dittman said.
Dittman says he doesn't take the CNN poll too seriously because it only sampled urban voters.
“If they left the Bush out, that's probably where Murkowski would be a lot stronger,” Dittman said.
The results don't just depend on who's asked the questions, but also what they're asked. In the Alaska Survey, conducted by pollster Ivan Moore, about 750 people were sampled.
One question asking people who they planned to vote for in the Senate race didn’t mention Murkowski as a write-in candidate -- but votes for her were counted if respondents brought up her name. Miller led responses with 43 percent, while Democratic Senate nominee Scott McAdams was second with almost 28 percent and Murkowski trailed at 18 percent.
In the second question, people were told Murkowski was in the race -- and she led with 44 percent.
The Alaska Survey, unlike some other polls, include a high proportion of cell-phone users -- again a different methodology. But there are some common threads in all these surveys.
“Mr. Miller does a lot better among males and among Republicans,” Dittman said.
Dittman says that trend isn't news, and neither is Murkowski's strong performance among women and liberals. The key will be to figure out what's going on with Alaska's unaffiliated voters, who make up about half of the state's registered voters, as well as moderate Democrats and Republicans.
“That particular group of people, right in the middle, not to the extremes one way -- the group in the middle are the ones driving our politics and our races right now,” said pollster Jean Craciun with Craciun Research. “Independents are the big story for researchers to be watching.”
In Craciun's poll, Murkowski carried 53 percent of the moderate voters. But Moore says that number might be higher: in a recent survey he did of Murkowski's positive and negative ratings, she scored very high among moderates.
“And there's a 50 percent block of moderates in the middle; her positive ratings among those folks is 70 percent,” Moore said.
Regardless of what the polls say, the pollsters agree that the election will hinge on moderate, undeclared and non-partisan voters like Holland.
“I definitely consider myself as undeclared: I'm not a Republican, I'm not a Democrat -- I am rather conservative,” Holland said.
Moore says undeclared voters don't like being asked about party affiliation, an attitude that makes the group's vote harder to track.
“It's, ‘Mind your own business -- I'm not going to tell what party I'm affiliated with,’” Moore said.
Dittman says the contrary nature of undeclared voters makes them less likely to turn out on Election Day, while non-partisans almost always vote because tend to be loyal to the candidate and not the party.
If there are issues that bring undeclared voters to the polls, however, the effect can be like awakening a sleeping giant.
“When they get engaged, when they all start moving in one direction, they could have a huge effect,” Dittman said.
One thing all the pollsters agree on is that this election is an opportunity to learn something new about Alaska voting patterns.
As for voters themselves, polls may not be so useful in telling who is really out in front. In the Republican primary, polls leading up to the election repeatedly showed Murkowski in the lead -- one reason why Miller's upset caught people by surprise.
The McAdams campaign argues that polls that include Lisa Murkowski don't reflect the realities of what happens in the voting booth.
Contact Rhonda McBride at email@example.com