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    Our Poll* Shows Close Race for Senate in Montana

    Credit…Rion Sanders/The Great Falls Tribune, via Associated Press

    A New York Times/Siena College poll of Montana shows a close race for Senate. But it has an important flaw: It named Green Party candidates who won’t be on the ballot this November.

    In August, the Montana Supreme Court denied a Republican-backed effort to qualify those candidates on the ballot. An appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected while our survey was being conducted. (They should have been removed from the poll beforehand anyway; the mistake was mine.)

    With the Green Party candidates officially off the ballot, the poll is a flawed test of the preferences of Montana voters. .

    But it still contains useful information about the attitudes of Montana voters. After all, no survey can ever offer a truly definitive measure of a race. There are many possible sources of error in polling, whether from the inherent imprecision of random sampling; unpredictable turnout; or the potential biases of question wording or interviewer effects. In this case, the flawed ballot test undoubtedly added a source of error. In fact, it’s a reason we know it’s wrong. But the magnitude of the effect is well within the range that we ordinarily tolerate.

    In the hotly contested Senate race — one that could decide which party has control of the chamber — the Republican Steve Daines led the Democrat Steve Bullock by one point, 45 percent to 44 percent. The Green Party candidate earned 3.5 percent.

    One might assume that these Green Party respondents would overwhelmingly back Mr. Bullock, but a deeper look at the 19 respondents who supported the Green Party candidate suggests that at least these particular respondents are not progressive voters. Instead, they mainly appear to be registering their dissatisfaction with the major-party candidates. In the governor’s race, they preferred the libertarian candidate over the erroneously listed Green Party candidate by a two-to-one margin. In some respects, they resemble the state over all: a preference for Donald J. Trump as president and for Republicans to control Congress.

    The Times and Siena College sought to re-contact the respondents who backed the Green Party candidate in the Senate race, and successfully re-interviewed 10 of the 19. Five backed Mr. Bullock, four supported Mr. Daines, and one was undecided. Mr. Daines would still lead by one percentage point if the available post-survey responses replaced initial interviews.

    Rachel Harley, 55, in Missoula, said she thought she remembered hearing some good ideas from the Green Party candidate, Wendie Fredrickson, and wanted to give her a chance. But without her on the ballot, Ms. Harley said her next pick would be Mr. Daines. She dislikes Mr. Bullock: “He hasn’t done anything that I like.”

    Michael MacManus, 70, in Big Sky, said he initially told the pollster that he was supporting the Green Party candidate as a joke, because he has taken surveys where “they try to guide you into something.” He realized that the poll was “on the up and up,” but only after the horse race questions asked at the very beginning of the survey. Asked again in a follow-up interview, he said he was supporting Mr. Bullock, “of course.”

    These Green Party respondents should in no way be taken as a representative sample of Green Party voters in Montana. This is a tiny group. They are worth analyzing only for the extremely unusual and limited purpose of evaluating whether these particular 19 humans would have broken overwhelmingly for one candidate or another had we not named the Green Party candidate in the poll.

    Some may wonder how a Senate race in Montana could be so close. After all, Mr. Trump won the state by 20 points in 2016. But Democrats successfully recruited Mr. Bullock, the state’s governor since 2013, who remains highly popular with voters even after his failed 2020 presidential run. His favorability rating is 53 percent (41 percent unfavorable), while just 48 percent had a favorable view of Mr. Daines, the incumbent Republican senator, and 44 percent held an unfavorable view.

    Mr. Daines is counting on the state’s rightward lean to help overcome Mr. Bullock’s personal popularity. By a margin of 50 percent to 42 percent, Montanans in our survey say they prefer that Republicans control the U.S. Senate, and they back President Trump over Joe Biden by a similar margin of 49 percent to 42 percent.

    The survey was conducted before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, and Mr. Daines can hope that the state’s Republican lean will prove even more important during an intense battle for the direction of the court.

    With half of the respondents saying they prefer Republican control of the Senate, Mr. Bullock might find it hard to hit 50 percent. Already, 96 percent of self-described Democrats in the state support him, versus 2 percent who don’t (with 1 percent undecided). As a result, the respondents who don’t back a major-party candidate seem to be relatively favorable to the Republicans. They identify as Republicans rather than Democrats by a margin of 30 percent to 5 percent, support Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden by a margin of 37 percent to 20 percent, and prefer Republican to Democratic control of the Senate by a margin of 40 percent to 21 percent. In each case, the undecided voters are less favorable to Mr. Bullock than the state as a whole.

    That said, the undecided group has a far more favorable view of Mr. Bullock, who has a minus-two favorability rating with the group, than of Mr. Daines, who has a minus-22 rating.

    Kathleen Williams, the Democrat running for U.S. House, faces a similar challenge among undecided voters. She has high name recognition and favorability among Democrats after her surprisingly strong run for the House in 2018. She claims a lead of 44 percent versus 41 percent for Matt Rosendale in the survey (while 2 percent goes to the Green Party candidate who is not on the ballot). But here again, the Democrat stands at just 44 percent with only 1 percent of Democrats still undecided. The path from here to victory could be difficult.

    Congressman Greg Gianforte, a Republican who defeated Ms. Williams in the 2018 House race, leads the Democrat Mike Cooney by six points in the state’s race for governor, 45 percent to 39 percent. The Green Party candidate received 1 percent, while Lyman Bishop, a libertarian, received 4 percent.

    Here are the crosstabs for the (flawed) poll.

    Emily Badger and Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting.


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