Anchorage’s mayoral runoff election will come down to turnout

A cliche in politics is that candidates win elections with turnout: It all comes down to whose supporters show up in greater numbers to cast ballots.

In the runoff election between incumbent Mayor Dave Bronson and former Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, that truism is being repeated again and again by the campaigns, their surrogates and outreach volunteers.

So what exactly does it mean that turnout will determine who leads Anchorage for the next three years? And how are the campaigns courting their potential voters to boost their chances of winning?

“There’s tactics within the tactics,” said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, and treasurer of the Putting Alaskans First Committee, an independent expenditure group that has spent heavily this cycle on getting LaFrance elected.

‘He ran up the score’

In April’s regular election, Bronson received 35.6% of the vote, and LaFrance took 36.2%. Since then, the campaigns have been trying to bring over to their side the roughly 28% of people who voted for one of the other eight candidates on that ballot, presuming that those people are all likely to vote again this month. But in Anchorage’s runoffs, the trend is that more people turn out for the second round of voting in May than they do in the regular April election.

In 2015, before Anchorage switched to its current vote-by-mail system, 57,606 people voted in the April regular election. Then, 70,650 people voted in the runoff, when Ethan Berkowitz beat then-Assembly member Amy Demboski by nearly 21 percentage points.

That pattern repeated in 2021.


“The last time, we saw a 20% increase in the runoff. And I think that may be our new normal,” said Eric Croft, chair of the LaFrance campaign and himself a former candidate for mayor.

In 2021, 75,441 residents cast ballots in the April election. The runoff saw 90,816 votes.

That uptick was key to how Bronson narrowly won over then-Assembly member and now state Sen. Forrest Dunbar, getting 1,193 more votes.

“What Bronson did last cycle was he competed really well in Anchorage, but he spent an enormous amount of time in Eagle River, and no candidates had ever done that before, and he ran up the score,” Hall said.

Put a different way, Bronson ate into the margin of support for Dunbar across neighborhoods in the Anchorage Bowl, which tend to tilt slightly left in their voting patterns. What pushed him over the edge, however, was boosting turnout among Eagle River residents, who tend to be the most consistently conservative voters in the municipality. Enough of them turned out that support for Bronson overtook the slight lead Dunbar had from his performance in other districts within the municipality.

[Anchorage’s mayoral runoff election ends Tuesday. Here’s how to return your ballot.]

‘The ballgame’

Since April, campaigns have been trying to figure out who didn’t vote the first time around — and who might be motivated to show up for their side in the runoff.

“At the conclusion of April 2nd election, only 30% of voters cast a ballot. Polling shows that of the 70% who didn’t bother to vote, there are voters who would have likely favored LaFrance and voters who would have likely aligned with Bronson,” said political consultant Art Hackney, who did work for Chris Tuck’s campaign earlier in the election but has since handled radio ads and messaging for Bronson. “Now that it’s a runoff, that turnout question is ‘the ballgame.’”

Hackney said one way a campaign can try to drive up turnout in the runoff is by putting out ads and messaging that hit on emotive or animating topics.

“For example, pointing out that an opponent is responsible for something — like the homeless situation — which the public is hot-under-the-collar about,” Hackney wrote in an email. “The quality of campaign messaging can influence turnout and also generate the ‘magic sauce,’ which is intensity. Messaging that effectively ignites a strong desire to take action is what sparks greater turnout.”

The other content shift in ads and messaging to constituents is giving up on persuasion and focusing on getting out the vote. As campaigns have gotten closer to the May 14 deadline to return runoff ballots, candidates have spent fewer resources trying to convince people why they are the right choice to lead the city, and more energy needling them to hurry up and get their ballots in the mail.

“You should switch your messaging to just get out the vote,” said Matt Shuckerow, whose company has done work for the Bronson campaign this year. “Talking to voters, it’s not ‘will they vote for you,’ it’s ‘if they vote, they will vote for you.’ So it’s all about turnout. Rather than trying to convince people to vote for you, it’s strictly focused on getting them to vote, because if they vote, they’re likely to vote for you.”

‘Probably the most sophisticated mayor’s race’

In the final leg of the runoff, it’s not fully clear where the Bronson campaign is focusing its efforts. Their latest campaign finance disclosure did not list future payments that would indicate where they’re steering resources in the closing days of the race. Campaign coordinator Blake Stieren declined to discuss details of how or where they are trying to reach potential Bronson voters.

“We do not share any details on campaign strategy,” Stieren said over the phone. “We’ve got a highly dedicated volunteer base that’s doing calls and door-knocking in Eagle River and Anchorage.”

According to Meta’s Ad Library, since April the Bronson campaign has spent several thousand dollars on different ads delivered to generally older Facebook users, and served them up to more men than women.

In terms of Bronson’s ground game, “it’s a black box to me,” said Hall, who lives at the north end of Eagle River and commutes daily into the Anchorage Bowl.

“Every morning when I drive in, there are people on the Eagle River bridge waving (Bronson) signs,” she noted. “There is some ground game out here that you wouldn’t see” in Anchorage, she said.


The LaFrance campaign has invested heavily in its ground operations, holding phone banking events and sending out volunteers and paid canvassers to knock on doors all over the municipality, which many political operatives see as one of the most effective but resource-intensive campaign tactics.

“We are doing an intensive but traditional GOTV effort,” said Croft, using the shorthand for “get out the vote.”

In recent cycles, as more granular voter data has become accessible to campaigns, door-knocking has fallen somewhat out of favor, partly because the pandemic made face-to-face interactions with strangers a risk that many campaigns were unwilling to ask their personnel to take. Even before COVID, many political campaigns were opting for more hyper-targeted digital outreach. Or, if campaign staff and volunteers did hit the street, they tended to prioritize neighborhoods with a higher share of residents sympathetic to their side, and avoid parts of town where the houses are spread farther apart and take longer to canvass.

“We’re doing it citywide,” Croft said of the LaFrance campaign’s door-knocking strategy.

That does not mean LaFrance volunteers have gone to every single door in the city, but they have gone to doors all across the city — and phones and social media accounts, too — after investing considerable resources into identifying marginal and persuadable voters, according to consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who works with the LaFrance campaign.

“Those people are getting reminder calls, they’re getting texts, they’re getting door knockers,” Lottsfeldt said. “We have more people on the phone and on the street than Bronson does. It’s not even close.”

Lottsfeldt said that the campaign is taking nothing for granted, but that regardless of the two campaigns’ different tactics, he asserts that Bronson is at a disadvantage because a large swath of the electorate passionately dislikes him and disapproves of the job he’s done the last three years.

“In this election, we’re going have good turnout from people that want a return to competent government,” Lottsfeldt said, echoing a line of attack against the mayor’s administration by his political opponents. “He’s a motivator for our side.”


Lottsfeldt is an old hand in Alaska politics and has worked on a wide range of campaigns. He and several others with firsthand knowledge of the LaFrance campaign’s inner workings say it is one of the most disciplined and organized they’ve seen in an Anchorage mayor’s race.

“This one has better technology and better tactics,” Lottsfeldt said. “This is probably the most sophisticated mayor’s race I’ve ever been a part of.”

As of Friday, election officials had received 41,124 ballots, which is high for this stage and puts the returns roughly in line with the 2021 runoff.

“We’re far outpacing — at least from what I can see — far outpacing the regular election at this point,” said Acting Election Administrator William Northrop.

Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.