High turnout in Montana was not enough—but there is a silver lining

Last night’s special election in Montana delivered on the hype, as Democrat Rob Quist ran a strong campaign coming within single digits of winning. The voter turnout on both sides was staggering for a special election, and while Quist lost, his improvement over standard Democratic Performance across the district portends great things for the Democrats as they scan the 2018 battleground. Simply put, if the trends we’re seeing in the recent special elections holds, the Democrats will have more than enough targets to retake the House in the next general election.

Turnout Likely Exceeded the 2014 Midterm Election

The most recent numbers show that 376,442 ballots were cast in yesterday’s special election, and the eventual tally may reach 380,000 votes. The level of turnout was enormous in both Democratic- and Republican-leaning counties, and may exceed that of the 2014 midterm election by more than 5,000 votes (almost 80 percent of the turnout in the 2016 presidential election).

Overall, an impressive 54.1 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in yesterday’s election. Among the Democratic counties of Missoula and Lewis & Clark, turnout equaled the state average and topped 60 percent, respectively. In two other Democratic leaning counties, Silver Bow (64.0%) and Gallatin (53.9%), turnout also approached the mean. This is unusual for a special election.

In 2016, Donald Trump won 61.1 points of the major party vote in Montana. In the special election, Rob Quist exceeded Hillary Clinton’s major party vote by 7.5 points. What is important to remember is that this differential would be sufficient to alter the outcome in districts that are only slightly more naturally competitive. Unfortunately, the Democratic special election candidate fell just 3.4 points short of a plurality.

Rural & Low-education Voters Stick with Republicans

As in the recent special election in Kansas, small rural counties strongly supported the Republican candidate, and turned out at respectable levels. Of the 12 counties where more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, ten were carried by the Republican. Only two of the counties with a 60-plus percent turnout went for the Democrat—Lewis & Clark and Deer Lodge.

In our article yesterday, we noted that eating into Yellowstone County’s Republican cushion was essential for Quist to win. Other recent Democrats who won statewide contests received at least 48 percent of the vote there. Unfortunately, this time Yellowstone went solidly for the Republicans. Gianforte won in Yellowstone by 10,074 votes, almost half of his statewide margin. Flathead County proved pivotal as well, as more than 80 percent of Gianforte’s margin was amassed in Yellowstone and Flathead counties. Rob Quist’s underperformance in Yellowstone is key, he won 39.8 percent in this county, and likely needed at least 45 percent to win.

What can we take away from all this?

Democrats, as they have in other congressional and legislative elections, performed much better than Hillary Clinton but not well enough. Moreover, it can be argued that Montana has a history of supporting selected Democratic candidates, but not without the support of lower income, lower education voters, who still broke for Gianforte. The turnout in Missoula and Lewis & Clark provides further evidence that Democrats are motivated. But the overall numbers also show that the Democrats have yet to make significant inroads with low-education, culturally conservative voters who contributed to Republican victories in 2014 and 2016. Without an improvement among these voting blocs, the full potential of the 2018 cycle may not be realized.

If we see similar improvement over traditional performance like we did last night, this would translate into a large number of winnable rural/suburban districts. The districts below are examples of where victory would be within reach.

Rural/Suburban Congressional Districts on the Radar
Arkansas 2
Iowa 1
Iowa 3
Kansas 2
Kentucky 6
Maine 2
Michigan 7
Nebraska 2
New Jersey 2
New Mexico 2
West Virginia 2