Two Counties to Watch in Tonight’s Special Election in Montana

Statewide Democratic candidates in Montana typically face an uphill battle, and tonight’s special election is no exception. Despite news of assault charges against Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist still has significant challenges to overcome. To win, Mr. Quist will have to replicate Senator Jon Tester’s performance in key counties.

Missoula County

Home of the University of Montana, Missoula is the single most important population center for Democrats in the state, it accounts for more than 10 percent of the total expected vote in a normal general election. Previous election results show us that successful Democratic candidates must maximize their vote share here.

Contest Candidate Missoula County
Margin of Victory
Margin of Victory
US Senate (2012) Jon Tester 18,296 18,072
Governor (2012) Steve Bullock 16,103 7,571
President (2008) Barack Obama 15,788 -11,723
President (2012) Barack Obama 10,172 -66,089
President (2016) Hillary Clinton 9,293 -101,531

Yellowstone County

Yellowstone is perhaps the most telling county in Montana, and it will prove pivotal again tonight. This is a marginal county with a Democratic Performance Index consistently in the mid-to-high 40s. In the past, successful Democratic candidates have been able to achieve a draw or a narrow victory among these voters.

Contest Candidate Yellowstone County
Major Party Vote Share
US Senate (2012) Jon Tester 50.4%
Governor (2016) Steve Bullock 49.6%
Governor (2012) Steve Bullock 49.4%
US Senate (2006) Jon Tester 49.0%
President (2008) Barack Obama 46.8%
President (2016) Hillary Clinton 35.1%

Senator Tester carried Yellowstone County in both of his electoral victories (50.4% in 2012 and 49.0% in 2006). Likewise, Democratic Governor Bullock saw similar support levels in Yellowstone County across both of his successful campaigns, receiving 49.6 percent in 2016 and 49.4 percent in 2012. Conversely, in presidential years statewide candidates often lose the county handily. Barack Obama saw his support level drop by more than seven percent in Yellowstone County between from 2008 to 2012. We expect Yellowstone County to be a strong indicator as the results come in tonight.

The Role of Early Voting

Despite yesterday’s disturbing altercation between Republican candidate Gianforte and a reporter for The Guardian newspaper, we still believe that the Gianforte has the natural advantage in this race, especially considering that in past elections almost two-thirds of the votes in this district were cast by absentee ballot. Since it’s likely that the majority of the votes have already been cast, the impact of this latest controversy may be limited. But we do expect this to be far more competitive than your average House race in the state, a close single-digit margin is likely.

Edited at 7:34 PM EST: Corrected a typo in the name for the Democratic candidate.