A recent poll on the midterm election in Montana puts incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester 3.1 points above state Auditor Matt Rosendale, his Republican challenger. That's within the poll's margin of error.
Tester and Rosendale are in the final two weeks of an election that is expected to be close. Most previous polling has shown the race is tight, and Tester won both his past bids with less than 50 percent of the vote.
More than $45 million has been spent in the race by candidates and outside groups looking to sway Montana voters. President Donald Trump has held rallies in the state an unprecedented three times and his surrogates have blanketed critical counties, including stops this week from Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is also stumping in cities around the state Tuesday.
The poll, with a margin or error of plus-or-minus 2 percent, was conducted by Montana State University and Montana Television Network. More than 2,000 people returned the mailed surveys, which were sent to 10,215 people, for a return rate of about 20 percent. Most previous polls in Montana have sample sizes that range from roughly 400 to 600 voters.
Data was collected from Sept. 15 to Oct. 6 from people who were registered to vote as of Aug. 14. Since then, registration numbers have risen from 686,791 to a record high of 702,670.
Tester is polling at 46.2 percent and Rosendale is at 43.1 percent. Libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge captured 2.6 percent of the vote. Of the remainder, 6.5 percent said they were undecided and 1.6 percent said they were supporting another unnamed candidate.
The poll found Tester has nearly the full support of Democrats, at 98 percent.
David Parker, the political scientist at Montana State University who conducted the poll, said that is fitting for a midterm election and a good sign for Tester, who got 95 percent of Democrats in his 2012 victory.
“That’s kind of the midterm effect,” Parker said. “Democrats were upset about Trump’s victory and are all behind him.”
Rosendale is polling at 83 percent from Republicans, which is about where Tester’s 2012 opponent, former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, was at the same point in that election.
Of the undecided voters, about 44 percent identify as Republican, 27 percent as independent and 26 percent as some other party.
“The question is do they come home? And that’s a big gamble,” Parker said. “If I had to guess, the Rosendale campaign has pretty much all been about Trump, and I’m not sure the voters have a clear image of who Matt is independent of that. Voters often want to cast a ballot not just for a Republican that supports the president, but also a personality, so that might be some of the hesitancy there.”
There are also Republicans who will vote for Tester, but Parker said it’s more about hesitancy over Rosendale. Those undecideds could help decide the election, as could turnout.
Parker said there’s no easy answer about how the Trump rallies will affect Republican excitement and turnout.
“I think the problem here is historically there’s only so much effect you can have with those rallies. The rally happens, there’s a shift in the poll and it goes away. They’re trying to sustain this and it’s an interesting experiment politically … In the past the effect hasn’t been terribly strong when the president hasn’t been that strong in the midterm,” Parker said.
But then again, Trump is unlike any other president.
The lay of the land shown in this poll is similar to how things looked before Tester’s 2012 victory over Rehberg, Parker said.
“Jon Tester was consistently within the margin of error (with a lead,) and that seems to be the case here, and there was some hesitancy among Republican voters,” Parker said.
Parker said for Rosendale to win, he needs to seal the deal among people who are undecided. Tester needs to make sure his supporters show up.
“He’s killing it among independents … but independents tend to be more fickle about showing up and voting,” Parker said.
Women significantly prefer Tester to Rosendale, by a margin of 51.7 percent to 38.6 percent. That matches a growing gender gap nationally. Men favor Rosendale by about 6 points.
Tester has much more support among younger and older voters, while Rosendale does better among middle-aged voters, particularly those ages 40-49. The poll notes Tester has support of those age 60 and older, a group of voters he split evenly with former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012.
“That’s precisely what Jon Tester needs to win this election,” Parker said.