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Montana State University released the results of its Treasure State poll today weighing Montana attitudes for the 2020 general election set for Nov 3. The poll, one of the most extensive publicly available polls on the state’s voter preferences for the upcoming election, is administered by members of the MSU Department of Political Science.

All the major races are close and the poll has a 3.9% margin of error, according to David Parker, MSU political science professor and one of three architects of the poll, which was conducted between Sept. 14 and Oct. 2.

In all, 1,787 Montanans responded to the mail-in poll that consisted of about 80 questions. Parker termed the return rate of about 20% as a good return rate. The professors weighted the responses to ensure the survey sample accurately represented the population of Montana’s registered voters. He said, per industry practice, they weighted the responses by gender, education, age, 2016 vote for president and place of residency. The Treasure State poll of the 2018 U.S. Senate election between Jon Tester and Matt Rosendale closely aligned with final results.

“Who turns out will be a key to these elections,” said Parker, who led a team that also included fellow MSU political science professors Eric Raile and Elizabeth Shanahan. Data analysis was provided by the MSU HELPS Lab, which Raile directs.

“For instance, younger voters disproportionately prefer Bullock to Daines,” Parker said. “If there is not a high turnout of younger voters, the GOP will win some of the races.”

Poll results by race follow.

U.S. Senate

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock leads incumbent Sen. Steve Daines by two points in the race for the U.S. Senate with 49% from likely and active registered voters compared to 47% for Daines. Only 3% were undecided.

The pre-election poll found that Bullock is the only Democrat to lead in the key races on the Montana ballot for 2020.

A key statistic in the race is that of loyalty from the two voting bases, Parker said. Bullock received 97% of support from Democrats compared to Daines’ 88% from Republicans. Another 67% of independent voters also said they preferred Bullock, compared to 29% for Daines, a margin that Parker called “overwhelming.”

“For the Democrats to win this race, they need to have their base behind them, a big solid lead from independent voters and hope for Republican defectors, all of which we see,” Parker said. “Bullock has gained some ground. That’s why the race is close, and he is in the lead.”

Parker said that the race between Bullock, a Democrat who has termed out as Montana’s governor, and Daines, a Republican freshman senator who was previously the state’s lone U.S. House Representative, has all the signs that it will be the most expensive race in state history.

Presidential race

The Treasure State poll found that while Donald Trump leads Democratic challenger Joe Biden, 51% to 44%, that 7-point lead is considerably less than the 20-point margin Trump carried the state with in the 2016 election.

The poll showed President Trump’s support remains strong among Montana Republicans with 94% of GOP voters favoring him. Similarly, Biden’s support among Democrats is 97%. However, Montana’s independent voters prefer Biden 56% to 29% for Trump, a nearly 30-point disparity.

Parker called President Trump’s 20-point Montana lead in the 2016 election falling to a 7-point margin in the 2020 election “an incredible cratering of support” in the state. Parker said that could have down-the-ballot implications in Montana.

“Voters don’t seem excited with the record of the Trump administration,” Parker said. However, he pointed out that since 1948, Democratic presidential candidates have won Montana’s Electoral College votes only twice, and it looks likely that Montana voters will again support the GOP candidate in this election.

U.S. House of Representatives

In the race for the open seat for Montana’s U.S. Representative, Matt Rosendale leads Kathleen Williams by two points, 48% to 46%, with 5% undecided. Parker said the results break down largely along partisan lines.

“However, more Republicans intend to vote for Williams (8%) than Democrats who intend to vote for Rosendale (1%),” Parker said. He said independents and voters with other partisan affiliations favor Williams by large margins of 28% and 33%, respectively.

However, Raile pointed out that independent voters often prefer not to vote a straight party ticket, and a ballot with strong Democratic candidates in other races could serve as a detriment for Williams.

“I do think independents like to split their ticket and vote for a GOP candidate somewhere on the ballot,” Raile said.

Montana Governor

Current U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte leads Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney by five points, 47% to 42%, with 7% of voters undecided.

Parker said the state’s governor race is the contest on the ballot with the most potential for upset.

“Lots of independent voters (14%) don’t know whom they’ll vote for, so there’s potential for movement,” he said.

Republicans support for Gianforte is 88% while 95% of Democrats are aligned with Cooney.

“It is likely that voters still don’t know who Mike Cooney is, while Congressman Gianforte has spent considerably not only in this race but in three previous statewide races and is well known as a result,” Parker said.

“Cooney cannot win without a high voter turnout and levels of support among young voters similar to those enjoyed by Gov. Bullock in the Senate race,” Parker said.

Legalized marijuana initiatives

In the two ballot initiatives pertaining to marijuana legalization, 49% of respondents said they would vote to support the initiatives supporting legalization, and 39% said they would oppose. Another 10% were uncertain how they would vote on this issue.

There are two initiatives that deal with marijuana legalization on the ballot (CI-118 and I-190), so the poll asked the following question: “The state ballot will ask about legalizing recreational marijuana in Montana. Will you vote to support or oppose legalization?”

Raile said of all the ballot-related questions in the poll, the response to this question was the only one outside the poll’s 3.9% margin of error. Seventy percent of Democrats said yes to legalization compared to 27% of Republicans. However, 13% of voters in each party were undecided or did not intend to vote on the issue. A majority of voters from ages 18 to 59 favor the measures with a majority of voters age 60 and above saying they will vote no to legalization.

Parker said the marijuana initiatives could draw young voters to the election, which would help Democrats all the way down the ballot.

 “I think it is important to think about a ballot as a complete organic entity,” Parker said. “Young voters strongly are in favor of the measure, and they tend to be Democratic leaning.”

Elected official approval ratings

The Treasure State Pre-Election Poll also asked respondents to rate five elected officials: President Trump, Gov. Bullock, Sen. Daines, Sen. Tester and Rep. Gianforte. Bullock’s approval rating of 60% is the highest among the group. Tester follows with 55%, Daines with 52% and Trump with 51%. Gianforte is fifth with a 47% approval rating.

“Gov. Bullock’s job approval ratings clarify why Daines is trailing in the race,” Parker said, noting the 8-point difference in the pair’s approval ratings.  “It’s not that the voters don’t like Daines, they just like Bullock more.”

Both Parker and Raile say that Gallatin County will be a key to this year’s elections. The county is the home to candidates running in races for the Senate, House and governor. It is also the fastest growing in the state with rapidly changing demographics.

“We know how Yellowstone and Missoula counties will vote,” Raile said. “Gallatin is a little less certain. Gallatin is going to matter a lot.”

Parker, Raile and fellow MSU political scientist Sara Guenther will host a live election night results program from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on YouTube assisted by MSU political science students. The show may be found Nov. 3 on http://montana.edu/election2020.

For more information about the survey results, go to http://helpslab.montana.edu/.

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