MTPR

New Data Reveals Montana's Political Divides

Aug 8, 2019

New data released from a survey of Montana voters reveals details in the state’s political divides. It shows what voters think of candidates not originally from Montana, whether people think teachers should be able to carry guns in schools, and voters preferences on government spending and their trust in the news media.

The information comes from a pre- and post-2018-election poll from Montana State University and the Montana Television Network.

Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney spoke with MSU Assistant Professor of Political Science Eric Raile about what the report found. 

Corin Cates-Carney: So in voters trust of different media sources and news outlets, when I was looking through the data, there was a pretty big difference between how Montanans viewed national and local media sources. Can you walk us through that?

Eric Raile: Yes. So we asked about 10 different media sources. And people do tend to trust local television, local newspaper and public radio more than they do those national sources. So that definitely shows up. Where you really start to see differences is when you dig into differences across partisan identification.

Cates-Carney: What were some of those differences?

Raile: Democrats are relatively trusting of most of the sources of information, including late night television, which is maybe a little bit concerning, but they were relatively trusting of the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, The New York Times and CNN. They were not at all trusting of Fox News and conservative talk radio.

If you look at Republicans, they are likely to trust Fox News and conservative talk radio, to a lesser extent local television, but they are more distrusting of virtually every other source than every other group.

And we have Republicans, we have Democrats, Independents, and then we had an 'Other' category into which people sorted themselves. Independents and Other category don't trust much except for local TV and radio, and public radio; or newspapers rather than public radio. But what this suggests, overall, is that given the Republicans are trusting Fox News and conservative talk radio and are pretty distrusting of most other information sources, some of the corporate strategies and the messaging about fake news and biased news seems to have taken hold. But also that the Republicans and Democrats, much like we see nationally, are getting really different information, and/or they're speaking different languages as a result. And we've seen prominent politicians talking about how our citizenry is split up and living in different realities, and we're seeing that replicated here as well to some extent.

Cates-Carney: So with Montana voters having very different media sources that they trust for their news and information, how does that bear-out, and what kind of issues the respondents of the survey are saying are important to them? And how does that break down by party?

Raile: So there are some partisan differences when you look at policies, and in confidence in different institutions. So if we look at policies, for example, the views on the health care law and the more recent tax law are very much based on partisanship, and that's what we see nationally as as well. There's more of a split among independents. Folks in the Other group aren't a big fan of the health care legislation. But you do see -- and this was interesting I thought -- that we asked about increasing taxes on households making more than $250,000, and there is significant support across the board including among that Republican group. There's widespread support for work requirements for Medicaid and for protecting federal lands. You see more of that partisan polarization when you ask about teachers being able to carry guns. Legal immigration, however, you see widespread evaluation of that being a serious problem.

Cates-Carney: What did the survey show about how people wanted or didn't want their tax dollars being spent in the ways that the government is spending money?

Raile: That too I thought was interesting because there is significant support for the federal government spending more. We actually asked whether people thought the government was spending too much, or the right amount, or too little; and there was big groups of people who said the government is spending too little on things like assistance to farmers, scientific research, reducing crime, environmental protection, social security, and there were a few other priorities as well. One big difference is that most people thought that we were spending too much on assistance to other countries.

A table from an MSU-MTN voter survey from Fall 2018.
Credit MSU & MTN, http://helpslab.montana.edu/documents/Issues_Overview_POST_Final_22Jan2019.pdf

Cates-Carney: And how much of this is broken down just to the federal government, or how much of it is is both spending by Montana State and spending by the federal government?

Raile: The questions only asked about national spending, so it's not broken down that way.

Cates-Carney: Do you see any indicators of political preferences or issues that are strong in voters minds that could indicate what we'll see in the lead up to 2020?

Raile: Within the state we see really strong support for environmental protections and for protecting federal lands, so that was a big deal in the last cycle. I think it will continue to be, given people's partisan views.

What immigration is among Montanans is fairly one sided, I think, especially with the presidential race being a part of it. We're going to continue to see a lot of focus on immigration in the next cycle.

Health care and taxes continue to be divisive, so I expect the two major parties to continue to use those to try to rally their bases and to try to disparage the other side.

And given the lack of trust in a lot of government institutions, I would expect continued attacks on government. Though, given what we see with people wanting to, or thinking that we could spend more on all kinds of different federal priorities, there's some room for those kinds of proposals as well. 

Cates-Carney: There was a question that asked people what quality in a candidate most mattered when they were casting their vote, and the top were sharing values, followed by good judgment by the candidate. And I found it interesting that far behind those was a candidate having the right experience, and then way behind that were people saying they wanted a candidate that was born in Montana. So very few cared about that.

Raile: But that last piece that you pointed out, I think, is an interesting finding. And I'm not sure the campaigns are aware of it, because when you see advertising you see a lot of emphasis being placed on whether candidates are from or not from Montana and how many generations their family has been here.

And according to the people who are voting, it doesn't matter all that much. Candidate's values and judgment are overwhelmingly the reasons that voters say that they're choosing one candidate over another. And values, they're pretty inflexible. They're kind of what what we see as really important in the world. And they're a pretty simple, heuristic a rule of thumb for for people to use. If people are voting on those bases I think we're going to continue to see contentious elections. I think we're going to see people continuing to talk past one another and there's a lot of focus by the media on policies and qualifications, and it just doesn't seem like it matters that much.

Cates-Carney: I often hear the line from politicians or people in this political sphere that say the country is becoming very divided, and more divided than it has been. In these survey results, does that bear out?

Raile: There is definitely a division. People are getting, they're trusting different information sources. A lot of the views on issues and policies are very much partisan. And so we do see that replicated in Montana, at least between people who are identified as Republican and Democratic. 

A table from an MSU-MTN voter survey from Fall 2018.
Credit MSU & MTN, http://helpslab.montana.edu/documents/Issues_Overview_POST_Final_22Jan2019.pdf

Cates-Carney: Did you have some pieces of information or one survey question that really stood out to you?

Raile: The overall Montanans are still pretty conservative. We'll see how that changes as the demographics change. Another piece here, that I didn't talk about, is that overall there's a majority preference for smaller government. And people see big government as a bigger threat than big business, and those are more conservative kinds of views that we're we're continuing to see within the state.

Cates-Carney: Eric Raile is an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University and director of the help's lab. Thank you for taking the time.

Raile: Thank you.

View the full results of the poll here