The Big Sky Poll conducted by the University of Montana and released Tuesday is less of a prediction of election outcomes and more of a taking-the-temperature on what voters think of candidates for office in 2020 and elected officials.
Its value for political analysts like Lee Banville, a journalism professor at the University of Montana, lies more in showing U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican who is seeking reelection, getting more positive reviews for his job performance than U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a fellow Republican who is running for governor this year.
Gianforte's work in D.C. was given an excellent or good job designation from about 37% of those polled, while 63% give him fair or poor marks. Daines, however, got positive rankings from about 43% of those polled, while 53% gave him a fair or poor performance review.
"That would seem to indicate that Greg Gianforte is a more polarizing figure than Steve Daines," Banville said.
The Big Sky Poll asked 498 Montanans their thoughts on the job performance of statewide and federal officeholders, as well as the president. It also asked voters who they'd pick out of all the candidates in a race, if the election was held the day they were polled. It was conducted online between Feb. 12-22 and has a margin of error of 4.39 percentage points.
"This is not a poll that tells you who's winning the race," Banville said. "This is a poll that tells you how the public thinks about this group of people running for an office, but that's very different than who's ahead. We don't know who's ahead today any more than we did yesterday."
Polls are also a snapshot in time, as indicated by this one that leaves out two newer candidates to the U.S. Senate race who joined at the tail-end of the polling period.
Daines' seat is seen as safe for Republicans to keep this year, while Gianforte is in a three-way primary with Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski. It's difficult to gauge what the poll means when looking at the governor's race.
Thirty-five percent of those polled said if the election were held that day they'd vote for Gianforte, which puts him ahead of Fox's 22%, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney's 21% and Democratic Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams' 14%. But Banville cautioned against using those numbers as a predictor of the race's outcome, saying that instead of asking voters to pick between either potential primary winner match-ups or among the candidates in a primary itself, all candidates are lumped together. That's not the choice voters will face in either the primary in June or the general election in November.
The poll also only captures the job performance for President Donald Trump, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Daines, Gianforte and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, as well as U.S. Congress and the state Legislature. That makes comparisons between candidates who also hold office, like Fox and Cooney for example in the governor's race, impossible.
In the U.S. House race, the poll showed that those who responded tend to equally like Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale and former Bozeman state lawmaker Kathleen Williams, who each had 36% of people say they'd vote for them if the election was held the day they were polled. Those two are expected to come out of their party's primaries, though a general election outcome is hard to predict from the Big Sky Poll since Secretary of State Corey Stapleton's 19% support will go elsewhere if he doesn't emerge from the primary.
Those polled also were asked if they'd vote for Bullock, a Democrat, in the U.S. Senate race even though he is not running. Bullock has said repeatedly he will not seek that seat, though the poll did show him capturing more support than the other four Democrats voters were asked about combined. Bullock got 38%, compared to 7% for Bozeman resident Cora Neumann, founder of the Global First Ladies Alliance; 4% for Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins; 2% for Bozeman resident Mike Knoles; and 2% for John Mues, a Navy veteran and engineer who works in the energy field and lives in Loma.
As for predicted presidential match-ups included in the poll, Banville pointed out that all the Democrats hypothetically put up against Trump did about the same, especially given the margin of error. That section of the poll is best viewed as an indicator Trump will win the presidential race in Montana this November, as he did in 2016 by 20 points.
There aren't a lot of publicly available polls conducted in Montana, and the state is a difficult one to poll. It's a small population but geographically large and economically diverse. That makes it difficult to get a representative sample, especially so when looking at smaller subgroups like age or gender within a poll. Getting a representative sample is also difficult, though polls including the Big Sky Poll are weighted to attempt to account for that.
This edition of the Big Sky Poll was commissioned with support from UM’s Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, the Baucus Institute’s Department of Public Administration and Policy and the Social Science Research Laboratory.