This is an increasingly polarised and vitriolic state of American politics. It is easy to see that the election-defining battleground is shrinking to a handful of states in the Midwest and the so-called “Sun Belt”.
The fall of Democratic union fortresses to Trumpian populism and the Republican bleeding in wealthy suburbia, set against the backdrop of a rapidly diversifying America, has clearly drawn the battlegrounds for the Senate and Electoral College. There is hyper-focus on Arizona and Wisconsin and their demographically-adjacent states.
Seemingly long gone are the famous counter-intuitive quirks of ticket splitting and flexible partisanship that baffle those of us in smaller countries where politics is so consistently nationalised.
Montana bucks the trend
There are many theories that suggest America is going through its natural cycle of polarisation and consolidation. Things have been worse – America did have a Civil War. Even in this time where people are shunning electoral merit and nuance for tribal signalling at the ballot box, there are still large corners of the union where ticket-splitting and voting elasticity do exist.
The large but sparsely populated state of Montana is one of the most elastic in the country. Despite only having voted twice for a Democrat since the war, Montana has been home to closer races than its demographic makeup would suggest.
Democrats in the state operate the best Democratic Party outside of blue and purple states in the country. The Governor’s mansion has stayed in the clutches of team blue since 2004. Meanwhile, the legislature carries a relatively narrow Republican majority.
Montana: The Elusive 51st Seat
As we eek closer to November, Montana has positioned itself as a critical state. This is despite its status as a “likely” or “safe” state for Trump in the election. A plethora of crucial elections for state row offices and the legislature are set to feature. But it’s the Senate between a pair of incumbent Steves that carries the most national significance.
Democrats look to be in good shape in Arizona & Colorado and are competitive in Maine and North Carolina. However, this is offset by a likely defeat in Alabama. Consequently, the search for a 51st seat has been a constant head-scratcher for Democrats this cycle.
The electoral landscape in Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina have begun to look better for Democrats, but the recruitment of Bullock has been a game changer for Democrats. They have turned Montana from a likely victory for Daines into a true tossup race.
In Montana, It’s Not All About Bullock
The Senate election is also set against the backdrop of the elections for the open House seat and Governor’s mansion. 2018 nominee Kathleen Williams is polling within 3-5% of 2018 GOP Senate nominee, Matt Rosendale in this often-tight contest. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney seems to be doing well in the race against 2016 nominee Greg Gianforte despite lower name recognition. All three of these races further demonstrate how quirky and elastic the state can be despite GOP’s dominance at the presidential level.
Potential at the Top of the Ticket?
Another indicator of Montana’s peculiar electoral disposition is its tendency to pivot against the parties of Presidential incumbents. That trend, plus the current national landscape, may make for an interesting race in Montana. Meanwhile, Joe Biden continues to assert dominance in the national election. Polls show Montana as a high single digit race. This is a far cry from Trump’s 21% blowout in 2016.
Such a result would put it within the margin of the national swing compared to 2016. There is still a long way to go and much can change. Whatever direction Monatanans decide to take will be a crucial indicator of two things; the degree to which we can still consider Montana one of the few remaining elastic states in the union and Trump’s performance among low educated and rural white voters.
Current polling indicates that Biden is in a position to perform similarly to President Obama in 2008. Obama’s large national margin and wide demographic appeal as a candidate helped him to keep Montana within two points.
If Biden can produce a similar national victory, the margin in Montana won’t be as easy to explain compared to states such as Ohio and Minnesota. Those should roughly correspond to their lean, plus or minus the national margin.
Montana could indicate the national trend, any reverse coattails that Steve Bullock can produce, or simply the type of localised coalition that Democrats such as Bullock, Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer have been able to produce.
What Might we Take Away from the Results?
This will be particularly interesting as a pathfinder for Montana Democrats in the future. The success of Montana Democrats has hinged on the ability to put together a rag-tag coalition of larger population centres such as Missoula and Helena as well as voters from small towns and the state’s Native American population. This has also been dependent on limiting rural GOP margins and keeping Billings relatively competitive.
As with many red state Democrats over the past decade, both Bullock and Tester’s successful elections in the last four years took on a slightly different character than their respective wins in 2012. Both had to rely on more population centres and well educated voters while less successfully lowering rural margins.
With Joe Biden performing significantly better with seniors and low education voters than Hillary Clinton, the character of strong performances for Bullock, Cooney and Biden may take very different characters. This may indicate a wide range of possible outcomes. Possibilities range from the reversion of the state to a more standard red state model, which would be a setback for Democrats, all the way to the potential of three different blueprints for successful Democrats in the state.
Either way the vast expanse of elections pan out in the state, the analysis in the weeks after the election will be a fascinating insight into the survival of Montana’s famous unpredictability. We’ll also find out if state Democrats have been able to uphold their reputation as the most successful red state party. The extent to which the President’s core voters have rendered a positive verdict on Trumpism in practice will also be tested.
Election Twitter Opens a New Frontier
Another curious nugget of data which has sprung from Biden’s strong national performance is in Alaska. Much like Montana, Alaska is heavily rural. However, it possesses an independent streak. This can make it near impossible to pinpoint exactly how the fiercely libertarian Alaskan voters will render their verdict at the ballot box.
From its quicksand-like partisan compositions to the near-unique status of coalition agreements in the legislature, Alaska bucks the trend. A majority of registered voters are independent. Democrats draw their strength from rural areas, while Republicans remain strong in the suburbs.
Alaska hasn’t voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1964; but it had a Democrat occupying a Senate seat as recently as 2014. Sen. Mark Begich even managed to keep the race close in the 2014 GOP wave which swept the nation. Begich’s father Tom was also sent to Congress for a year before his untimely death.
After a truly astonishing crowdfunding effort on the part of Election Twitter, the notoriously low-interest and tough-to-poll Alaska was host to a high quality poll from Public Policy Polling. The PPP poll put Trump just three points ahead of Biden at 48%. This would be down from his 15 point win against Clinton in 2016.
This margin is generally consistent with the national picture being dominated by Biden. With PVI’s utility being relatively narrow in any sense, the elasticity and unpredictability of Alaska could make for a close race regardless of the national picture.
Another Peculiar Upper Chamber Contest
More interesting still, Sen. Dan Sullivan only leads strategic independent Al Gross 39-34%. The most worrying sign for Sullivan is that he, as a sitting U.S. Senator, has 27% of the state’s voters not knowing him well enough to hold an opinion of him.
The good news is that more still aren’t particularly aware of Gross. This may end up being a double edged sword. Among those who are familiar with Gross, he leads Sullivan by almost 20 points. That said, if he cannot get the state’s voters to become familiar with him, it is likely that undecideds will skew Republican, particularly if Trump wins the state.
As with Montana, Alaska also has the potential to be a competitive hotspot for an at-large House seat. Also like the Yellowstone state, Alaska’s at-large seat is often closer than the state’s lean would dictate. Despite this fact, Rep. Don Young is the Dean of the House by virtue of having served since 1973.
In 2018, Young faced a tough test with strategic independent, Alyse Galvin keeping the race within seven points. This despite Young’s continued crossover appeal among rural voters.
According to PPP, Galvin slightly leads Young with a two point advantage. Gross and Galvin certainly have an opening similar to Bullock and Williams in Montana; a politically elastic state in which the top of the ticket seems to be performing better that they usually would.
While Montana’s Senate race dominates the news cycle, further downballot elections in both states present curious and unpredictable points of prediction and analysis. This also set against the backdrop of an increasingly interesting Alaska Senate election.
Unlike other cycles, the somewhat competitive Presidential race is also a real factor in these two empty states, which take on a distinctive hot pink hue on political maps. The electoral diad that are these two frontier states rarely fail to set the imagination alight. That said, with the vast expanse of curious and potentially close elections up and down the ballot, we are still in for a special treat.
As history-making results pour in through the various Secretaries of State across the nation in the days and week after election day, our eyes will fixate on Arizona and Wisconsin. But as they do, we should keep an eye on Alaska and Montana. They might just be the last outposts of elastic unpredictability in America. In these two states with comedically small populations, the quirky voting habits of its equally idiosyncratic citizens may have a tangible effect on the next four years.