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A wary look at the polls; The Libertarian factor; Who does high turnout help?

A recent poll raises as many questions as answers about the mid-term election. Tranel's snake keeps slithering. Libertarians deny they're conspiring with Democrats. And conventional wisdom about voter turnout may not be so wise in this election.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Holly, MSU Billings came out with its election poll this week, and before we talk about some of the results, we should mention the small sample size. Only 343 people responded.

Holly Michels Yeah, that is something that we look at when we're looking at polls and considering how much attention and weight to give them. Sample size is a big part of that and like you said, this one does have a very small sample size. So that's a caveat to keep in mind as we discuss the poll. It was also conducted using a random method of dialing telephone numbers. They did wait the results based on census information, but even so, this poll still comes with a pretty hefty margin of error. That's about 5.3% and then if you look at subgroups, there's even larger margins of error. But we've talked about on this show before, in the absence of public polling in Montana, especially in a midterm cycle like this, even in a presidential election, it's pretty hard to come by. We do look to these polls because it's what we have to work with in this situation.

Sally Mauk Given all these caveats, the poll shows that in both the congressional races, the presumed front runners, Matt Rosendale, Ryan Zinke are leading.

Holly Michels Yeah, looking at the western district and Montana, Zinke is up that tracks with other polls we've seen this cycle that were paid for either by his Democratic opponent Monica Tranel's campaign or a PAC that's supporting Tranel. This poll puts Zinke at nearly 34% and has Tranel at about 25%. I think what's really interesting in this race though with this poll is it has libertarian John Lamb at 17%. Lamb's gotten a lot more attention in this race, both from people watching it and the two major party candidates than libertarians typically get. Tranel has done debates with Lamb around the district, and Zinke is making direct attacks against Lamb, so he's probably has much higher name recognition than other Libertarian candidates in the past or the party's candidate running in the eastern district does. The poll also, I think, in this race shows that 20% of people don't know who they're voting for. And this was out right in the first two weeks of October, so it's right before ballots started reaching people.

Looking at the eastern house race, like you said, incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale heavily favored to win in that district. And the poll shows he's up about 35% of people backing him. And interesting to look at, this poll also asked people about the job approval rating for Rosendale and his disapproval rate is 35% also. The most interesting thing in the eastern district here is this poll has Democrat Penny Ronning at 17%, an independent candidate, Gary Buchanan, at a bit over 21%. So put those two together and they'd actually be up over Rosendale. You don't think you can say all Buchanan supporters would back Ronning, or the other way around, if it was just one of them in the race, but we have heard a lot about one of them playing spoiler to the other in their efforts to pick off Rosendale. And this poll could be showing that might be a little bit of what's going on.

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Sally Mauk The poll, Holly, also shows Montanans oppose the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and still support legal abortion.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is an interesting glimpse. I think this is a place where a lot of people, especially journalists like me, would love to have better public polling on the issue of abortion access, you know, polling Montanans, there's just not great information out there. You know, this poll shows that a bit more than 53% of the people in this, again small sample size, disagreed with the court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade, that's compared to nearly 28% who agreed. About half of those who were polled said they consider themselves to be pro-choice compared to about a third who are pro-life. You know pro-life is kind of a tricky term we try to avoid in journalism because it doesn't really address abortion access, but that's the wording of this poll here. Again, this is, it's a poll with a small sample size, but this is one of the few data points we have. And I think, you know, if we look at other states that are majority Republican, that have also shown pretty strong support of access to abortion recently, we had Kansas recently with a vote there. I think this is indicating we might see a similar something to Montana. We don't really have a question about abortion access on the ballot this election. There is a born alive referendum that is associated with abortion, but it's not as clean as an example as Kansas. So, I think a lot of people are watching that outcome. I'm curious how that will turn out, especially given the information we're seeing in this poll.

Sally Mauk Rob, one statistic in the poll both shocked and dismayed me. 81% of those polled, say they distrust the mainstream media. That's almost everyone who was polled.

Rob Saldin Right, Sally. You know, just to circle back very briefly to the congressional races. You know, some of the results we see in this poll just aren't consistent with what we'd expect. You know, as Holly noted, the 20% undecided in district one. That's just unusually high and Lamb, polling 17%. Again, that is really high, you know, back in the 2012 Senate election, the Libertarian candidate got 6%. That was considered a remarkable showing by a third party candidate and there were ads up for him and so forth. So, even with some Republican and conservative dissatisfaction with Zinke, that still seems really high for Lamb. As for the distrust of the media, you know, I'm also not quite sure what to make of those results in a very general sense. That finding is consistent with other data that indicate a real problem for mainstream media. The American public's view of media has been declining for some time. However, the numbers in this particular poll are just really strong. Right, they find that only 9% trust mainstream media. Usually that number, at least nationally, clocks in at more around one third of voters trusting the media. Now, it's not necessarily surprising that that number might be a little lower in Montana than it is nationally, but still, 9% strikes me as just awfully low and inconsistent with a lot of the other data that's out there.

Sally Mauk Rob, Democrat Monica Tranel and her favorite snake have a new ad on the air. Here it is.

Tranel We gave Ryan Zinke a chance. He sold us out filling his own pockets. I'm Monica Tranel. I'll work for Montana in Congress. I'll go after corporate monopolies that are ripping us off. It's what I've done my whole career. And, I'll take on anyone, in any party, who tries to hurt Montana. I approve this message. After I deal with Ryan Zinke, I'm coming for the rest of the snakes ripping us off.

Sally Mauk This ad, Rob, shows Tranel once again scooping up a snake with her shovel and going after her opponent, Ryan Zinke. But she also says, quote, "I'll take on anyone in any party who tries to hurt Montana." That's a pretty good line.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally, we're in closing argument time right now. This obviously hits on some familiar themes. You know, first the knock on Zinke, that he's corrupt, he's not an advocate for Montana, he's just out for himself. And, you know, as we've talked about for months now, these are some real liabilities for Zinke. It's, you know, kind of long been a thing that's out there about him, that he seems to be particularly ambitious, even by the standards of a politician. You know, he put his name forward to be speaker of the House just months after arriving in Washington. As a freshman in Congress, he purportedly suggested himself to be Trump's vice-presidential running mate in 2016. So just that has always going to raise the question of whether this guy is really in it to represent Montana in Congress, or whether this is all about him, climbing the ladder, raising his profile for the next gig or to make money down the road or whatever it may be.

And then, of course, there are all the ethics investigations, which eventually forced him out of the Trump administration. You know, I think a lot of people are able to dismiss one or two things kind of like that, but when they pile up the way they have with Zinke, that tends to leave a mark and it all reinforces the idea here, as Tranel says, in this ad that Zinke sold us out to benefit himself. And the whole recurring snake bit is obviously a metaphor for that, just whole basket of issues. That all stands in contrast with Tranel, who, this ad encourages us to think, is not only independent minded and as someone who's picked up bipartisan support and so forth, but also someone who is going to be an advocate and a fighter for Montanans and that'll take on anybody in any party line there at the end. Kind of hits both of those points.

Sally Mauk Holly, a conservative website has accused Libertarian John Lamb of coordinating with Democrats to try to defeat Zinke. And that's something Lamb and his party, and Democrats, strongly deny.

Holly Michels Yeah, what we've seen before in previous election cycles in Montana, the role of the third party and what they can do to draw away votes from the other candidates. In 2012, we talked about that in Jon Tester's race with the Libertarian candidate being elevated in an effort to maybe siphon votes from the Republican. In 2018 and 2020, we saw efforts, one of them funded by the Republican Party in Montana, to try to qualify the Green Party on the ballot. The thought is Greens would take away votes from Democrats, and that's sort of what these accusations are getting at here. The story kind of focuses on two things. One is a text message that was sent by a Democrat volunteer. The volunteer, according to the party, was not following any of their messaging or script, but just had suggested to a person who responded to a text message asking if they supported Tranel. The response was no. The volunteer then suggested John Lamb as an alternate candidate to look at.

The other thing that we have seen, is throughout this election, since the primary, Tranel has held a series of forums around the district. She issued a call for those right after the primary. Zinke hasn't responded, but Lamb has shown up to those. And they are forums where people can come attend, talk to the candidates, but Zinke's absence and Lamb's presence there gives Tranel sort of a chance to continue the attacks that Rob was talking about, we've heard her make against that cycle. So I think, you know, I talked to the chair of the Libertarian Party in Montana recently, and he said that they feel like the party is getting a lot more attention from these two major candidates than ever before. So that's why I think we're seeing these claims come up sort of as the closing arguments here. And he's saying Libertarians are trying to kind of find that place of- or those people, who are dissatisfied with other parties. They're seeing data showing they're the fastest growing party in Montana. So, much more prominent role for John Lamb in this race. And I think we talked about earlier with that poll showing him at 17%, that's probably got a lot of issues around that number, but I am really curious to see on election night, just how much support he gets, given how prominent he's been this cycle.

Sally Mauk Rob, midterm elections historically have low voter turnout, but some pundits think the Dobbs decision might drive more voters to the polls in this midterm. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout helps Democrats. But in 2020, in Montana, high turnout swept Republicans into office. So what do you think about the impact of turnout in this particular election?

Rob Saldin Well, Sally, I think all indications suggest a high turnout by midterm standards, Dobbs being one factor, but not the only one. And there is a long standing piece of conventional wisdom that holds, you know, high turn out good for Democrats, low turnout, good for Republicans. That was probably always overstated. But 2020, as you note, really revealed that that's just not necessarily true, you know, two years ago, we saw a record turnout in Montana. And it worked to the advantage of Republicans. What seems to have happened is that we had a lot of people turn out, who rarely, if ever, vote, and they came out to support Trump, and while they're at it, they ticked a lot of the boxes for the Republican candidates down ballot. So, if we see that kind of turnout again, you know, that could very well mean a lot of those low-propensity voters who supported GOP candidates two years ago, that they're back and they're mobilized in an enduring way. Now, of course, Trump isn't on the ballot this time, so I'd certainly expect at least some drop off in the kind of numbers we saw in 2020 among that cohort.

You know, it's probably worth noting here that even in 2020, in what's now the western congressional district, Democrats were still quite competitive. But in any event, I think for Republicans, you hope to see those jacked-up turnout numbers again, like we did two years ago. And for Democrats, you hope to get the youth vote out, mobilize people around Dobbs, get the reservation vote out. And you hope that some of the Trump diehards who came out two years ago aren't as engaged this time.

Sally Mauk One thing's for sure, if you don't vote, you can't complain. Holly and Rob, thank you and I'll talk to you next week.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

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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.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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