HELENA — A new poll from Montana State University shows Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock leading Republican Sen. Steve Daines by seven percentage points in Montana’s high-profile 2020 U.S. Senate contest.
The online poll, which surveyed 738 Montanans in mid-to-late April, asked registered, likely voters who they would support, if the election for Senate were held now. Just over 46% said they’d choose Bullock and 39% supported Daines.
Seven percent said they were undecided, while another 6 percent said they would vote for someone else. A Libertarian and Green Party candidate also are on the ballot.
David Parker, the chair of the political science department at MSU-Bozeman, said the poll confirms that the Bullock-Daines contest will be a close, hard-fought race – one of the most-watched Senate matchups in the nation.
“I think it’s certainly reasonable to assume that the race is probably within the margin of error and too close to call,” he told MTN News. “So, while we show a lead (for Bullock), it’s within the margin of error, so I would say, yeah, this is a competitive Senate race.”
The poll’s margin of error is plus-or-minus 3.6 percentage points.
The poll also asked voters about the presidential race in Montana and their approval of how top officials have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump led Democrat Joe Biden, but only by 5.6% – 45.3% to 39.7%. About 10% said they would vote for someone else and 5% said they were undecided.
Fifty-three percent of Montanans approve of the president’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, while 39% disapprove and 8% don’t know.
Bullock, however, had 70% of Montanans approving of his response to the pandemic and just 20% who said they disapproved. Only 48% of those surveyed said they approved of Daines’ response, but 28% said they didn’t know. The numbers were similar for Democratic U.S. Sen Jon Tester: 42% said they approved and 30% said they didn’t know.
Parker said he’s not surprised by Bullock’s high approval rating and the middling rating of Montana’s U.S. senators.
“It just demonstrates the information advantage that executives have in these times of crisis,” he said.
Parker said he analyzed the Montana media exposure of Bullock and Daines during the month of March and found about 800 news articles mentioning the governor and only 150 mentioning Daines.
“So, we have an information advantage, people like the job that Bullock is doing, and he was already popular,” he said. “Then let’s add the final piece of the equation: Steve Daines has been on TV since early March with television advertising. Do you know how much Steve Bullock has spent on TV? Zero. So that certainly should be a cause for concern (by Daines).”
A closer look at the Bullock-Daines numbers also revealed details about each man’s strengths and weaknesses, among demographic groups of voters.
Bullock has a huge lead among women, 52%-to-29%, and led among all age groups except those 70 and older and those aged 30-39 – the latter of which, he trailed by only a point. He also leads among self-declared Independents, which are almost one-third of the respondents, by 46%-to-32%, and strongly among those with college degrees.
Daines leads among men, 53%-to40%, among those with a high-school diploma or less, and among two income groups: Those earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year (by six percentage points) and those earning more than $150,000 a year (by 24 percentage points).
Among Democrats, who made up just less than a fourth of respondents, 87% said they would vote for Bullock. Daines had the support of 82% of Republicans, who were one-third of the respondents to the poll.
Daines, elected in 2014, is trying to win a second consecutive term. Bullock, a two-term governor, had said for more than a year that he wasn’t interested in challenging Daines in 2020 and ran for president for several months in 2019.
But, on March 9, the last day to file as a candidate in Montana for 2020, Bullock got into the race, instantly catapulting the contest to a national-level matchup. He raised $3.3 million in campaign funds in the first three weeks as a candidate.
Parker said the COVID-19 pandemic also has scrambled the race in ways that will be difficult to predict.
In addition to Bullock getting huge, free media exposure for leading the state during the pandemic, it may be difficult to bombard him with negative ads in this time of crisis, he said.
“Right now, it’s going to be really hard to attack somebody who is just trying to steer the state through a serious crisis, and who the public thinks is doing a pretty good job,” Parker said.
The electorate also is viewing issues in a much different way and candidates aren’t yet able to campaign in traditional ways, such as holding rallies or meeting voters one-on-one, he added.
“It’s hard, given all of that uncertainty, to even project what’s going to happen in the fall,” Parker said. “It’s always hard. It’s even harder now.”