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News that incumbent Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski will run as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary has thrown the political world into a tizzy. Write-in candidates seldom win in such high-profile races—Strom Thurmond is only Senator to have won in such a fashion—but they do have a way of upending races. The reason why traces its roots back to the birth of political science.
Should McAdams win in the November election, he would likely be what political scientists call the “Condorcet loser,” a paradoxical name for a candidate who wins office without the support of the majority. Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, a pioneering 18th century political scientist and the Marquis de Condorcet, outlined the circumstances under which such an outcome would occur. In his perfect system, the winner of an election would always be the Condorcet winner. But as Alaska may soon discover, real elections do not always hew to idealized political processes.
Murkowski’s write-in campaign could throw a wrench into Republican plans to control the Senate, but Joe Miller, the winner of the primary, could still win office. According to political economist Mehmet Ekmekci, Miller could win if people coordinate their votes when they head to the polls. Though it sounds nefarious, coordinating in this case means “observing similar advertisements, similar endorsement announcements, and then aligning my vote with those endorsements,” Ekmekci said.
In the Alaskan Senate race, coordination could develop like this, he said: Sarah Palin appears on Fox News and endorses Miller for the general election (which will probably happen, if it hasn’t already). If Republican voters follow Palin’s endorsement and vote for Miller on election day, they will have coordinated their votes.
But coordination and endorsements can also work in Murkowski’s favor. Should Murkowski receive a strong endorsement from a powerful figure, it could boost her standing in the polls. Still, she faces an up hill battle as a write-in candidate, and any strong endorsements she receives will likely benefit McAdams the Democratic candidate by splitting the Republican vote.
Murkowski’s campaign does not currently give McAdams “the upper hand,” Ekmekci said, “but it’s beneficial. In this case, he benefits from multiple opponents, because the additional opponent doesn’t steal votes from him.”
For McAdams, he said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”