By Jim Ellis
April 27, 2017 — While the Montana at-large special election has been heating up with both major party candidates approaching the $2 million mark in campaign receipts and each heavily spending on media, we had surprisingly not seen any polling data … until yesterday.
The lack of polling led some analysts to believe the race was trending toward Republican Greg Gianforte. Democrats, normally quick to release survey numbers that favor their candidate, had been unusually quiet about nominee Rob Quist’s ballot test status. GOP strategists typically tend to play their polling cards closer to the vest, but often publicize survey data in response to what they see as embellished numbers for the opponent.
It’s possible that such an argument scenario has some validity in this instance. The Emerson College Polling Society made public their recent survey totals that post Gianforte to a major advantage over country rock singer Rob Quist (D).
According to the poll (April 20-21; 648 MT-AL likely voters), Gianforte owns a 52-37 percent margin over Quist, which likely explains why we haven’t seen a large volume of Democratic polling data similar to what is coming from the Georgia special election.
Surprisingly, the Emerson numbers also suggest that Quist is upside-down on his favorability index. According to their study, Quist’s ratio is 43:48 percent positive to negative as compared to Gianforte’s 52:43 percent. The Republicans have been hitting Quist hard on the airwaves, accusing him of favoring a national gun registry for assault weapons, and noting that several tax liens were placed against him for non-payment.
The Emerson College Polling Society is comprised of a group of students, whose reliability factor compares favorably to even the professional pollsters. Bloomberg News rates them as the most accurate of college pollsters, though their prognostication factor consistently rivals the most prominent of survey research firms.
So far, the Montana campaign strategy has been interesting in that the two candidates had been virtually parroting each other in their early ad messages. Both began by pledging to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and then progressed to each shooting a piece of electronic equipment in order to demonstrate an individual commitment to the 2nd Amendment.
The Emerson polling indicates that such an echoing media strategy is helping Gianforte. It further suggests that if everything remains constant, the Republican will win this race. Thus, we are beginning to see Quist break away from the similarity format and into new attack areas, emphasizing his support for maintaining access to public lands and pinpointing Gianforte as a “New Jersey millionaire.” The latter tact contrasts Quist as being born and raised in Montana, which explains his inherent understanding of life in Big Sky country.
The election is May 25, and with the candidates and both parties now heavily engaged, we will see more intense action in this vast, rural state.
To bring the contest home, Gianforte must continue to identify and turnout his larger GOP base while driving home the ideological contrast between he and Quist.
In response, the Democrat will intensify his attacks against Gianforte, attempting to make a negative image stick. Well behind in what is seemingly an accurate poll, Quist will have to make a short-term dramatic move in order to close the gap. If he can, a superior Democratic turnout program, if they do in fact have a ground game advantage in Montana, would then be set in motion to bring home the race.
Today, Gianforte appears to be in the driver’s seat, but a solid month of campaigning remains, and the direction can quickly change.