As Election Day approached last week, most public polls had declared the big statewide races in Montana – U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor – to be relatively close, with Republicans perhaps having an edge.
Yet the final outcome showed no such spread: Republicans cruised to easy victories, up and down the ticket, winning every statewide election by at least 10 percentage points and expanding their already considerable majorities in the Legislature.
How did most pollsters miss the mark so badly?
Pollsters and political experts in the state point to several possible factors, such as polls not reaching enough Trump/GOP supporters, not fully accounting for the partisan makeup in the state or misreading the impact of a record voter turnout.
But all of these factors may point to a simpler explanation: Montana has become an increasingly Republican state and more people voting meant more votes for Republicans.
“There are just a lot more Republicans (here) than there are Democrats,” says University of Montana political scientist Rob Saldin. “So if you have a higher turnout, that might very well mean you are turning out more Republicans, who, for whatever reason, haven’t chosen to vote in the past.”
About 611,000 people cast ballots in Montana’s 2020 election, surpassing the old statewide record set in 2016 by more than 94,000 votes. The election also was the first time most of Montana used all-mail ballots, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines beat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock 55 percent to 45 percent; Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte won the governor’s race, 54 percent to 42 percent over Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney; Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale won the U.S. House race over Democrat Kathleen Williams, 56 percent to 44 percent; and President Trump easily beat Democrat Joe Biden in Montana, 57 percent 41 percent.
Most polls had shown the U.S. Senate and House races to be a toss-up and the governor’s and presidential race within single digits, with Gianforte and Trump leading.
One of the most prominent in-state polls, released in mid-October – a mail-in poll by Montana State University’s political science department -- gave Bullock a two-point lead in the U.S. Senate race, 49 percent to 47 percent, over Daines.
It also gave Rosendale a two-point lead over Williams and had Gianforte up by five points over Cooney and Trump by seven points over Biden.
Eric Raile, an MSU political scientist who helped design the poll, said the department adjusted or “weighted” the responses based on Montana voter turnouts in 2016 and 2018, intending to make the sample accurately reflect the makeup of Montanans who voted in those elections.
Yet with the record turnout, the 2020 electorate probably changed from those prior years, he said.
“It doesn’t seem like anybody knew that the electorate was going to change this way,” Raile said. “We used whether somebody voted for Trump as a weight and basically everybody else did as well. That wasn’t enough this time, because the electorate changed again in a way that we hadn’t anticipated.”
And that surge of newer voters apparently skewed much more Republican, he said.
Democratic counties like Missoula, Gallatin, and Butte-Silver Bow – three of only seven counties that went for Biden – had increased turnout this year in the 2 percent to 7 percent range.
Yet in counties that went Republican, like Flathead, Cascade, Sanders and Lincoln, the increase often was higher, ranging from 9 percent in Lincoln to 13 percent in Cascade.
“So there were small bumps in those few counties that vote Democratic, but virtually all of the counties that vote Republican saw those kind of bumps or bigger,” Raile said.
He also said it appears that a group historically reluctant to answer polls – younger voters -- turned out in larger percentages this year and also leaned Republican, contrary to the profile of younger voters in many other states.
Saldin also said that there's evidence that some voters have come to consider polling "politicized" -- particularly those who support President Trump.
"People who support President Trump are less likely to take those calls and agree to participate in polls, because they see it as another one of those elite institutions that's biased against them and their president, part of the fake media -- that whole narrative," he said.
Not all pollsters missed the target in Montana, however.
Emerson Polling, a respected polling operation at Boston’s Emerson College, released a poll in early October that pretty much nailed the final results in Montana: It had Daines up by nine points and Trump and Gianforte by 13 points each.
Emerson relied solely on text messages, sent to the cell phones of a sample of 17,500 voters in Montana. It ultimately used the responses of 500 people and weighted them to reflect the 2016 electorate, said poll director Spencer Kimball.
“It’s a new method; we only started experimenting with it a few years ago,” he said. “We used it in Montana and other places where voters are hard to reach. … To me, this is just the evolution of survey research.”
Kimball said an Emerson poll of Montana in August had shown similar results, and they stopped polling here and “felt that the state was kind of locked up” for Trump and Republicans.
Erik Iverson of Missoula, president of Moore Information Group, a national polling firm that works for Republicans and did work for the Daines campaign, said its polls always had Daines leading Bullock by at least a few points.
He told MTN News he believes some other polls of Montana failed to properly account for the partisan makeup of the state, by not getting enough responses from Republican voters. If the pollsters didn’t do that, heavy “weighting” to make the sample reflect the electorate may render the data inaccurate, he said.
Iverson said his poll samples worked to get responses from Republicans at anywhere from an 11-point to 14-point margin over Democrats – which polls have shown to be the spread in Montana -- and then asked self-declared “independents” which way they normally vote.
The results showed Daines over Bullock anywhere from five points to as much as eight points, he said.
As politics have become more partisan and polarized, party identification or “lean” have become much more indicative of how people will vote, Iverson added.
“I think it’s because of Trump,” he said. “People are just putting on a jersey and they’re picking sides and they aren’t really leaving. We haven’t seen the level of ticket-splitting that we’ve seen (in Montana) in the past.”
The results of the other, down-ticket statewide races in Montana bore out that theory: Republicans won their races for attorney general, auditor and secretary of state by anywhere from 16 to 20 points. Only the contest for state superintendent of public instruction was closer, but Republican Elsie Arntzen still won by eight percentage points and 50,000 votes.
The Republicans’ big margins, however, came as a surprise to many, including those who worked on the campaigns. They may have expected GOP victories, and even fairly easy ones, but not to the degree that it happened.
“I saw some of the internal (campaigns’) polling, and I didn’t see anything even remotely close to the numbers we saw pop up on Tuesday night,” said Saldin, the UM political scientist. “In talking with some of the people on the campaigns, I can also report that they’re every bit as surprised – not necessarily in terms of who won, but by the huge margins that we saw the Republican candidates win by.”