Can a Sanders-Style Democrat Win Montana's House Seat?

Can a Sanders-Style Democrat Win Montana's House Seat?
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In 2017, an entertainer who never planned on running for public office could ride his fame and non-traditional platform to political power in Washington.

I’m not talking about Donald Trump -- I’m talking about banjo-playing country/folk musician Rob Quist.

Quist is the Democratic candidate in the race to fill Montana’s vacant At-Large congressional seat. Republican Ryan Zinke left the seat earlier this year to serve as secretary of the interior in the Trump administration. Quist, a self-proclaimed Sanders-style Democrat, is scheduled to face off against Republican businessman Greg Gianforte on May 25.

In a normal year, it would be easy to lay odds on this race. Donald Trump won the mostly white, very rural state by 20 points in 2016, and Montanans haven’t sent a Democrat to the House since 1994. Given the current urban/rural divide in our politics, this should add up to an enormous advantage for the Republican.

But this isn’t a normal year. This is a special election, which may lead to a low turnout and an abnormally shaped electorate. There’s been almost no polling, and it’s hard to gauge what effect Quist’s local popularity or Gianforte’s near-success in last year’s gubernatorial race might have. It’s also unclear what effect the Trump presidency (and the anti-Trump resistance movement) will have on the race.

More importantly, Montana isn’t a normal state. While it has leaned hard to the right in presidential politics, statewide Democrats like Sen. Jon Tester (up for re-election in 2018) and Gov. Steve Bullock (who won a second term in November) have been able to put together winning coalitions. So it’s worth asking -- how did they do it? And can Rob Quist replicate their success?

Trump, Tester, Dukakis and a Political Time Machine

Tester and Bullock have been able to win statewide races in Montana by turning back the clock on our political divisions. Specifically, they’ve been able to resurrect the politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We can use maps to demonstrate this. First, we’ll take a look at Jon Tester’s successful 2012 re-election campaign.

Tester won using a fairly simple formula. Unlike other Democrats, he didn’t let the bottom fall out in rural areas. He won 46.1 percent of the vote in rural counties (using the CBSA divisions that Sean Trende and I used in our election review series), while Obama only won 38.6 percent of the rural vote nationally that year. Second, he won the small-town counties and large-town counties with 52.9 and 56.7 percent of the two-party vote, respectively. These counties -- representing Kalispell, Missoula, Anaconda, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls, Helena and the surrounding areas -- are mostly a mix of university towns and old mining centers with a strong labor union tradition. Most of these cities are also in the mountainous western section of the state rather than the historically Republican eastern plains.

This map differs sharply from Clinton’s 2016 loss.

Clinton still won some of the more populous counties -- including Missoula and Gallatin (home to Bozeman) -- but she lost large towns with only 46.7 percent of the two-party vote and small towns with 39.5 percent of the vote. Perhaps most importantly she only won 29.9 percent of the vote in rural counties, which cast over a third of the state’s two-party tally. (Note that using linear regression, Tester’s vote share is a good predictor of Clinton’s, but the gap between Clinton’s support in the most rural and urbanized areas is larger than Tester’s gap, and her overall support is significantly lower.)

But Tester’s win bears some similarities to a different Northeastern technocrat’s presidential loss -- Michael Dukakis’ 1988 defeat at the hands of George H.W. Bush.

Dukakis lost the state by six points while losing nationally by eight, indicating that Montana was fairly close to the political center in the late 1980s. This map shows the partisan lean of each county -- that is, how much more or less Republican or Democratic a county voted compared to the national result.

The 1988 map and Tester’s re-election map are similar. Democrats ran well in large western mining and university towns, as well as the various Indian reservations across the state. Republicans won most of the rural counties, and kept it close or barely won some population centers (such as Yellowstone County, home to Billings).  

There are some key differences between the successful Montana Democrats of today and the 1988 Democratic Coalition in the state. The rural eastern plains were more hospitable to the 1980s/1990s Democrats than they were to Tester or Bullock, and some of the population centers are more Democratic now than they were 30 years ago.

But Tester and Bullock managed to put together coalitions that bear some resemblance to that of Dukakis and Bill Clinton (who won the state in 1992). This data suggest that these more recent Democrats were, to some degree, able to unearth the political battle of lines of that era -- when Democrats were less popular in the culturally cosmopolitan megalopolises but more able to fight Republicans for downscale and rural whites.

So how exactly did the current governor and senator turn back the clock? It’s a hard question to answer definitively; voting is a complicated process and people have multiple conscious and unconscious motivations.

But there are a couple intuitive possibilities.

Bullock and Tester, like some New Democrats of the 1990s, took moderate to conservative positions on key issues. For example, Tester is pro-gun and emphasizes the need to cut wasteful spending (other Democrats also take this position, but Republicans typically put greater emphasis on it). Bullock supported the Keystone XL Pipeline and was more cautious on Syrian refugee resettlement than some other Democratic governors. All that might have helped both men distance themselves from the national party brand, which was less popular in their state.

But maybe more importantly, successful Montana Democrats don’t project cultural cosmopolitanism. Tester wears cowboy boots, features combines and guns prominently in his ads and as of 2012 still slaughtered his some of his own food. In 2012 Bullock ran an ad that was basically just endorsements from police officers.

These political and cultural decisions might help Democrats win union voters (or voters who feel connected to organized labor) as well as culturally conservative whites who are open to more liberal economic policies. This strategy won’t convert all Montanans, and neither Tester nor Bullock won re-election in a landslide. But when state Democrats successfully talk and govern like Bill Clinton, voters sometimes respond by creating something like Bill Clinton’s coalition for them.

There is one notable exception to this rule -- Barack Obama. In 2008, he came within three points of winning Montana (with a map similar to Tester’s) despite being culturally and politically distant from the typical Democrat there. But his performance that year was likely a product of circumstance rather than his personal appeal. Then-Sen. Obama won the national popular vote by seven points, partially because unpopular Republican President George W. Bush was dragging his party down. In 2012, when conditions were less favorable for Democrats (though still good enough for Obama to win a second term), Mitt Romney won Big Sky Country by 14 points.

So Where Does This Put Rob Quist?

It’s unclear whether Quist’s support will resemble Tester’s winning coalition, Hillary Clinton’s losing coalition, something between the two, or something else entirely. It’s difficult to gauge if he’ll win -- much less how -- without a steady stream of reliable polling.

But if the Montana electorate looks anything like it did in past cycles, Democrats have a path to victory. The real question, which will be answered on May 25, is if Quist will be able to take it.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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