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February 12, 2016

Montana Senate: A Real Race or Simply Manufactured Buzz?


Walsh, left, was appointed to the Senate earlier this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Walsh, left, was appointed to the Senate earlier this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Maybe you believe in coincidences. I usually do — but not four months from an election.

Almost simultaneously, two different memos appeared from Democratic pollsters insisting the Montana Senate race has closed and the outcome of the contest is very much in doubt.

One memo, by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, meets existing standards of transparency and while I have issues with the firm’s conclusions, I was happy with the way the data were presented.

The other memo, by widely respected, Colorado-based Harstad Strategic Research, was dreadful and little more than spin. It fails to meet the minimum standards of disclosure about polls, and devoted more time to promoting the firm’s candidate, appointed Sen. John Walsh, and vilifying Republicans (and the media), than discussing data.

“Montana Senate Race Tightens Considerably” crowed the July release from PPP. Predictably, someone at Daily Kos picked that up and penned an upbeat post about Democratic prospects in the race.

But politics is all about context — just ask the campaign of New Hampshire GOP Senate hopeful and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott P. Brown, which I criticized a few days ago — and the July 17-18 poll of 574 “Montana voters” (PPP’s terminology) isn’t that big of   a deal.

The rub of the memo is that, according to PPP President Dean Debnam, the Montana race has closed “over the past eight months,” and is “looking much more competitive now than it did last fall.” Republican Rep. Steve Daines’ lead over Walsh was 17 points in November, but has now shrunk to “only” 7 points, 46 percent to 39 percent.

Of course, last November was a horrible time for the president and his party. The White House was on the defensive over the health care website launch, and that surely contributed to Democratic problems. Using PPP’s November numbers to establish the baseline in the race almost guarantees a closer contest.

Walsh was a sitting lieutenant governor in November, as he wasn’t appointed to Democrat Max Baucus’ vacant Senate seat until February. He was generally unknown, which also depressed his showing in the survey.

You don’t need to believe me. Here is what PPP said in November: “Part of Daines’ lead is name identification. … Because of that, twice as many Democrats and independents are undecided as Republicans.”  

While Baucus solidified his seat and didn’t have close races, many Montana Senate races are extremely close. Sen. Jon Tester’s margin in 2012 was 4 points, his margin in 2006 was less than a single point, and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns won his 2000 election by fewer than 3 points.

The 2014 race was guaranteed to “tighten” under normal circumstance, and that normal closing has occurred. If you really thought Daines would win the open seat by 17 points, you had to figure that either Democrats would nominate a third-tier candidate or the GOP wave in 2014 would be huge.

Whatever you think of the PPP release, it shines in comparison with the Harstad Strategic Research memo. According to that memo, written by Harstad’s Andrew Maxfield, “our internal polling has us just five points down,” 43 percent to 38 percent.

The Harstad numbers aren’t all that different from PPP’s, but the Harstad memo is overflowing with messaging, not analysis. In a sense, it is a polling memo without polling.

There are a few numbers in the memo’s second paragraph, but what stands out are two separate mentions of Liz Cheney, one mention of the Koch brothers, one of Karl Rove and two of Eric Cantor. The poll memo also belittles GOP pollsters and the national media.

What does the Harstad poll memo not include? It lacks basic information, including the dates of polls, the nature of the samples (adults, registered voters or likely voters) and sample sizes of the recent to poll which it refers.

I called to get some of the details and was told the most recent survey was done for the campaign, was conducted in mid-July and included likely voters. In other words, plenty of details were still left out, and the information I eventually received was provided only grudgingly after I cited American Association for Public Opinion Research guidelines.

If you are a little confused, you aren’t alone. Why would a legitimate polling firm act like the details of its now partially publicly released polls need to be guarded like the gold in Fort Knox? And why would a veteran polling firm that deals with numbers and rigorous analysis send out a release that was mostly advocacy?

It certainly looks as if PPP and Harstad worked in tandem to try to create a new narrative about the Montana Senate race that would convince political reporters and handicappers — and maybe even Democratic super PACs — that Walsh has a decent chance of overtaking Daines.

The Harstad memo is dated July 17. PPP was in the field on July 17-18, with its memo dated July 21. The core of each memo was the same: The race is tightening and is competitive.

I spoke to a veteran Democratic consultant about this and was told that Democratic consultants know when PPP is going into the field for a specific race. I don’t know whether there was coordination in this case, but the themes of the two memos are remarkably similar.

I have always made a distinction between the Montana Senate race, where the GOP has an advantage, and races in South Dakota and West Virginia, which I regard as lost causes for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But the new PPP  numbers don’t lead me to change my opinion of the race one whit. Daines remains the clear favorite. As for the Harstad memo, its lack of basic information, silly attacks on Republicans and emphasis on messaging makes it easy to ignore.

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rate the Montana Senate race as a Tossup/Tilts Republican contest.

  • Mitch

    I don’t think being a plagiarist is going to help John Walsh’s chances either.

    He is toast.

  • SamR

    I think the race was tightening, but these polls are now outdated as they were done before the NYT gutting of Walsh. If Walsh was going to win, he needed to be the McCaskill (opponent self-destructs) or Heitkamp (runs a perfect race) of this cycle.

    The NYT story isn’t just the plagiarism, its the response to it. Martin did a nice job to get the evidence, get the interview, and then tie up the evidence with Walsh’s denial that even his staffers don’t agree with.

    Sidenote to Army War College professors: Google is your friend.

    • teapartyidiots

      Exactly. Begich is the Heitkamp of this cycle I think – even the head of the Alaska GOP conceded that he’s running a phenomenal reelection campaign. My guess is Hagan will be the McCaskill as I think that Tillis will self-destruct.

      • mabramso

        1. Heitkamp was a challenger in a red state during a blue year, running against a truly lousy candidate, and she barely won. Begich is an incumbent running in a much redder state against a couple of pretty good candidates (Sullivan and Treadwell) during what will arguably be a red year. Begich will need a perfect campaign (as well as a Joe Miller independent run) to scrape by. But during a 6th year midterm, my money is on Sullivan or Treadwell.

        2. There is little chance that Tillis will pull an Akin. Tillis is a lot of things, but one thing he is not is undisciplined in what he says. The guy is pretty smooth and stays on message, and that is why the GOP establishment desperately wanted him to defeat the tea partiers in the primary. Hagan’s numbers are still dreadful, and if the NC state legislature were not so unpopular, I’d wager Tillis would be ahead by 5-6 points by now.

        3. And considering what has happened recently with Walsh, I would say that the MT race is over.

        • teapartyidiots

          Agree on three, disagree on 1 and 2. Sullivan is not polling well.

          • mabramso

            Polls in AK are notoriously bad and unreliable — perhaps more so than any other state (well, NH is pretty bad too).

          • teapartyidiots

            Hawaii and Nevada too. (Hawaii due to time zone issues, and Nevada because of the large amount of shift workers).

          • mabramso

            Agreed. HI had a poll before the 2004 election that showed it tied in the electoral college, and it went for Kerry by 10. I had forgotten about NV. That’s probably why Rasmussen had Reid down 3-4 points in NV right before he won re-election.

          • teapartyidiots

            Yup, because it got the older retirees, but not the younger, more diverse shift workers.

  • wdb

    If Daines is the “clear favorite” (and I agree with you), why do you still rate the race a tossup? Time to change it to Leans or Likely Republican.

    • teapartyidiots

      I’d say Leans. Montana usually elects Democrats to the Senate, so I don’t think we’re quite at Likely yet.

      • wdb

        Yes, that is why I was hesitant to rate Daines’ chances too highly for a while too – but this new scandal will certainly improve them. He has changed it to Leans now though.

        • teapartyidiots

          I think we’re at likely now.

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