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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Undecided Voters; Ballot Initiatives; Erroneous Voter Information

Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.
Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.

Polls show undecided voters may tip the balance in Montana's House and Senate races; how two ballot issues are attracting a lot of outside money and attention; new ads range from ominous to humorous; and a national Republican group sends out a mailer with erroneous voter information. Listen in now on "Campaign Beat," MTPR's weekly political analysis program.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson.

And Chuck, an MTN-MSU polltaken in late September and early October shows Jon Tester leading Matt Rosendale in the Senate race, but only by 3 percent. And that makes the race a virtual tossup.

Chuck Johnson: That's right, and that squares with some earlier polls we've seen. Although, some recent other polls, have showed Tester with more of a lead. But this is the poll that interviewed the most number of people so I think it may be the most credible. Yeah, and it also showed 6.5 percent of the voters undecided. That's a pretty large margin going into the final weeks of the campaign. And it showed the Libertarian candidate getting 2.67 percent. And then 1.6 percent offered up the names of someone else. So you've really got about 8 percent that are undecided or threw out another name. So how those people vote will decide the election, I think.

SM: The poll also showed there is a significant gender gap in this race with more women supporting Tester, and more men supporting Rosendale. So the women's vote could sway this election, as well, one way or the other.

CJ: That's true, and this gender gap is nothing new. We usually see it in races where the Democratic candidate fares much better with women voters than the Republican candidate. And that's the case here too.

SM: Rob, that same poll shows Greg Gianforte with a 7-point lead over Kathleen Williams in the House race.

Rob Saldin: That's right, Sally. Unlike the Senate race, that's statistically significant lead that's outside the margin of error for Gianforte. So that's very good news for Gianforte. But like Tester's lead in the Senate race, Gianforte is well short of the 50-percent threshold. Both these incumbents, I suspect, would be feeling a lot better if they were polling above that line. Anytime you have an incumbent falling short of that it suggests that they haven't totally closed the deal with the voters and it gives the challenger a legitimate reason to hold out hope that those undecided voters will break in their direction. And there are still a lot of undecided voters in this House race. Nearly 9 percent, according to this poll.

Bear in mind too, the timing on this poll, right? This poll was mostly conducted, as you noted, prior to the final Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. So to the extent that there was a Kavanagh effect on the election, right, that would only be partially reflected in these results. It was also before last week's Trump rally in Missoula, in which the President proudly reminisced about Gianforte's assault of a reporter last year. And it was obviously conducted prior to the discovery of the numerous mail bombs this week targeting leading Democrats. It's hard to know for sure but it's at least possible that all of those things would potentially work to Williams' advantage. So I think bottom line, you'd much rather be in Gianforte's position heading into the final days of this thing than in Kathleen Williams' position. But if you're Gianforte, you're not really in a position to breathe easy yet. And if you're Williams, you do have some reason for hope.

SM: Williams has a new ad out going after Gianforte for assaulting that reporter.

Kathleen Williams: "I'm Kathleen Williams and I approve this message.

Narrator: "Greg Gianforte."

Greg Gianforte: "I'm sick and tired of you guys. Get the hell out of here."

Narrator: "Assault and lies. This is not who we are. Insulting retirees and harming Social Security."

Greg Gianforte: "He wasn't cashing Social Security checks, he was working."

Narrator: "This is not who we are. Gutting Medicare to enrich himself. Jeopardizing lives by cutting health care. This is not who we are. Greg Gianforte is not who we are."

SM: And this ad comes on the heels of as you pointed out, Rob, President Trump congratulating Gianforte for that assault when Trump was in Missoula recently, and in the wake of those bomb attempts this week targeting people in media who Trump has criticized. So the timing of this ad likely gives it more traction.

RS: Yeah, I think so. You know, we've been wondering when that audio of the bodyslam was going to turn up in Williams' ad, and there it is. There's been something of an ongoing debate about whether that incident helped or hurt Gianforte in the special election last year. But it is clear that Gianforte, at least, would very much like to put it behind him and move on. President Trump certainly didn't do Gianforte any favors in that effort at the Missoula rally last week. And now we get another reminder of it with this ad, which, like you say, comes on the heels of a number of attempted bombings of prominent Democrats and their supporters.

You know, there is one other element of this ad that I think is notable and that is pretty deceptive, actually. When it accuses Gianforte of gutting Medicare to enrich himself – which of course is not how he would describe his position on Medicare – but leaving that aside, the visual you see is of an apparent newspaper headline that reads, Gianforte guts Medicare to give himselfmassivetax break. Well, the source for that headline is the Montana Post, right? Which sounds like a credible news outlet, but it's not. The Montana Post is one of the state's most prominent political blogs. It's authored by Don Pogreba, a progressive writer based in Helena. (Editor's Note: The specific post in question was authored by Nathan Kosted) And his blog is very well regarded for what it is, and it has a wide following among those interested in Montana politics, but it operates just in a very different space than a newspaper that's committed to objectivity and to nonpartisanship. But this ad presents it as an authoritative, dispassionate, journalistic source. Not quite.

SM: Chuck, a TV ad by a group called Restoration PAC takes a humorous approach. It shows a Jon Tester impersonator sitting in a chair getting makeup applied.

Jon Tester impersonator: "I need to cover up a few things. I voted against the Trump tax cuts. And I voted against Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch. Oh. And I voted to allow nukes in Iran."

Makeup artist: "We're going to need more makeup."

Narrator: "All the makeup in Montana can't hide Jon Tester's liberal record. Restoration PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising."

SM: And this ad is clever, Chuck, and it hits the high points Rosendale wants to hit with voters, as well.

CJ: Yeah that's right, Sally, and it's got a little humor in it, which is always nice at this stage in the campaign when we've seen a lot of ads from both sides that might be classified as nasty. This is the second impersonator ad we've seen this campaign cycle. The first one was one by either Tester or Democratic supporters that showed Rosendale as a fake rancher ordering some fancy cowboy boots and a fancy cowboy belt buckle, and out on a piece of land, and stepping in a cow pie. So again, it was a funny ad, as well. And you know they make points with humor and I think humor is always appreciated in these races.

SM: Rob, that in MTN-MSU poll also shows I-185, the Initiative to raise tobacco taxes, as basically a tossup. But I-186, to restrict what new mines can do to pollute, is likely to pass. I'm not surprised by the first result, I'm a little surprised by the second.

RS: Yeah. 185 is close. Looks like that one could go either way based on the poll. 186, you're right. This poll at least shows it doing very well and in a very good position to pass. I think that does come as a surprise to a lot of people who have thought that, if anything, the edge was towards the no side on that one. We'll have to see.

SM: And there's a ton of money being poured into those campaigns as well, especially to defeat I-185. The tobacco industry has spent millions in Montana because they do not want that to pass.

RS: Right.

SM: Chuck, the other issues on the ballot are LR 129, which would limit who can deliver a ballot for someone.What's the genesis of that?

CJ: Well, this was put on the ballot by the Legislature, by Republicans. And I think they're afraid if we get vote by mail in Montana that individual groups that are involved in the election, whether it's political parties or environmental groups or whatever, could go pick up a bunch of these ballots from people and deliver themselves to the election office. And they raise concerns about fraud, although, we've never heard any cases of fraud. But this is the ballot measure that's getting no attention and it's one I don't think people know a lot about.

SM: The 6-mill levy for higher education is also on the ballot and this is something that's on the ballot every 10 years, and up until now it's always passed. And the poll shows that it's likely to pass again.

CJ: That's right, Sally. The polls showed it was ahead 54 percent to 21 or 22 percent with about 22 percent undecided. There have been some ads running in support of this referendum, but I haven't seen any advertising against it. It would be about a $20 million property tax bill on people every year for about 70 years so it's not a new tax by any means. What it amounts to is it's sort of a vote of confidence in the university system and it looks like it's going to pass again.

SM: And Chuck, one odd thing that happened recently, the Republican National Committee sent out flyers in Montana, wrongly saying that absentee ballots could be received and counted after Election Day if they were postmarked before then.That's not true and they plan to send out a correction. But it seems to me the harm is done if someone saw that and believed it and doesn't see the correction.

CJ: Well, we can only hope that people get the correction before they do their voting. And you know these are mistakes that shouldn't happen and the question is, was it done deliberately or not. I think they say no, but it is an odd thing to do. And you'd think political parties better than anyone would know how Montana's election laws work.

SM: Right. They're not helping the cause here. Rob, midterm elections usually have low turnout, but this year could be an exception in Montana and elsewhere, I think. There have been major get-out-the-vote efforts around the country, including here.

RS: Yeah, exactly Sally. Usually, there's a huge drop off in voting in midterms as compared to presidential years but this might be an anomaly. Clearly, Democrats have been fired up for a long time. There was a big enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans post-Kavanaugh. It looks like Republican enthusiasm has picked up a lot. So that could mean that we have a lot of engaged voters and that we'll see a much higher turnout than usual in a midterm election, on both sides.

SM: And in Montana, Chuck, do you think higher turnout favors one party or the other?

CJ: Well, it's sort of been thought in the past that high turnout favors Democrats. But I don't know anymore. You know it's hard to say.

SM: One thing we do want to point out that in terms of these initiatives and ballot issues, everyone gets a voter information pamphlet and those things are explained in there. And plus, of course, there's tons of information available online so people can and should educate themselves about those. There's still plenty of time to vote between now and November 6, we want to also point out.

You've been listening to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Talk to you again next week guys.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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