Montana Shock Poll

By Jim Ellis

(Left) Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R); Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

May 7, 2020 — Montana State University at Bozeman’s research arm just completed a survey of their state’s electorate (April 10-27; 738 Montana adults, 458 likely Montana voters) and produced a surprising tally in the Senate race.

According to MSU Bozeman, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) has jumped out to a 46-39 percent lead over first-term Sen. Steve Daines (R) even with President Trump posting a 5.6 percentage point advantage over former vice president Joe Biden (46.3 – 39.7 percent) within the same sampling group.

Though Montana is viewed as a Republican state, and it generally performs as such in most federal races, the margins usually aren’t particularly lopsided, and Democrats have done well in statewide contests up until 2016. Except for Gov. Bullock’s 50-46 percent re-election victory that year, Republicans running in the wake of Trump’s 20-point landslide win over Hillary Clinton, swept the other races.

Several notes about this poll: first, the questioning period lasted 18 days, a very long time for a likely voter sample size of 458 individuals. Typically, such surveys are conducted over a three-day period. Such an implementation interval substantially increases the error rate.

Second, though the error factor is stated as 4.6 percent, the chairman of the university’s political science department, Dr. David Parker, stated in a local Helena KTVH television news story, that the Senate race is within the margin of error and in reality too close to call. While his conclusion may well be accurate, the ballot test shows a margin between Bullock and Daines of seven percentage points, meaning that the result is well beyond the polling margin of error. Therefore, Dr. Parker’s comments suggest the methodology actually yields an error factor larger than stated, which is more consistent with the elongated sampling time feature.

Perhaps an underlying reason for Gov. Bullock’s strong showing is his COVID-19 virus response. According to the Bozeman data, Gov. Bullock’s approval rating for his handling of the virus crisis is overwhelmingly positive. By a ratio of 70:20 percent, the respondents approve of the job he is doing in relation to managing the coronavirus situation. In contrast, the same respondents give President Trump a 53:39 percent positive to negative approval rating in answering the same question.

Additionally, according to Dr. Parker who studied the Montana media coverage of the disease-related news stories, Gov. Bullock was mentioned in approximately 800 news stories in comparison to Sen. Daines’ being quoted or referenced in about 150 articles or electronic reports. On the other hand, Sen. Daines has been running electronic and digital campaign ads since early March and Gov. Bullock has reportedly yet to run any.

The poll also uncovered a major gender gap. Gov. Bullock enjoys a huge 52-29 percent segmentation among women. More importantly, he leads 46-32 percent among Independents. The governor also has the edge with voters under 30 years of age and among those in the 40-69 age group, in addition to college graduates.

Sen. Daines has a 53-40 percent margin among men, records a significant advantage among those holding a high-school diploma or less, with individuals making $30,000-50,000 per year, and the segment earning more than $150,000 annually.

The partisan split is clearly polarized, which seems to be the typical response in virtually every contemporary campaign. Here, Gov. Bullock enjoys 87 percent support among Democrats while Sen. Daines commands the pre-election votes of 82 percent from Republicans.

On the money front, Sen. Daines had raised just a tick under $8 million for the campaign and reported more than $5.6 million in the bank at the end of March. Gov. Bullock, who filed at the candidate deadline on March 9, quickly raised $3.3 million through the end of the month and had $3.1 million cash-on-hand. Clearly, money in this at-large state of approximately 1.07 million people with just over 692,000 registered voters will not be an issue for either man.

The Democratic leadership worked hard to convince Gov. Bullock to run for the Senate before he announced for president and after his ill-fated national campaign quickly collapsed. The results of this first major Montana Senate poll suggest that their time and effort was well invested.

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