The Missoula margin

How the Garden City drives Montana politics



With the books not even closed on the 2006 midterm elections, political operatives are already analyzing Montana’s electoral trends as they try to pin down winning strategies for 2008. But as the last of the provisional and absentee ballots are tallied, one thing is already clear: to win in Montana, you’ve got to show strong in Missoula County.

No other Montana county even came close to producing the lopsided advantage for a single candidate that Missoula did; U.S. Senator-elect Jon Tester rode to victory on a 2-1 advantage over incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns in the state’s second-largest county. Missoula County turned out 64 percent of its voters, and when all was said and done, they gave Tester nearly 14,000 votes more than Burns received, helping offset expected losses in the state’s more conservative—and less populous—rural counties.

“We always expected [Missoula County] to be important,” says Tester spokesman Matt McKenna. “We knew we had to do very well there, and we did better than we expected, but in a race that was decided by 3,000 votes, almost every county and every decision becomes critical.”

But look at the election numbers side by side on the page and Missoula’s results stand out dramatically. Here’s how it broke down:

Burns and Tester each took five of Montana’s top-10 most populous counties. Tester won Missoula, Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow and Lake counties, while Yellowstone, Flathead, Gallatin, Ravalli and Lincoln counties ended up in Burns’ column. Burns’ largest margin of victory was in staunchly Republican Flathead County. He won there with 56 percent of the vote, which translates to a 5,235-vote advantage. That advantage was essentially wiped out, however, by Silver Bow County, which churned out a 5,106-vote advantage for Tester. The candidates virtually tied in traditionally Republican Gallatin County, where Burns edged Tester by 182 votes. Burns won Yellowstone, the state’s largest county and Burns’ adopted home of 40 years, by only 1,222 votes, or 2 percentage points.

But it was Missoula County that swamped the field and gave Tester an overwhelming advantage. Of the 45,879 votes cast in Missoula County, 29,327 went to Tester, giving the challenger a 13,717-vote advantage. When the top-ten-county votes were tallied together, Tester emerged with a strikingly similar 12,055-vote advantage.

“There was never a question of were we or were we not going to do well in Missoula. The question was how well would we do, and would we do well enough to make up for shortcomings in other counties,” McKenna says.

The answer was yes, as Missoula County’s overwhelming differential helped Tester eke out a 2,847-vote statewide edge to win the election.

“In my judgment, Burns did not do as well as he needed to in Gallatin and Yellowstone counties,” says Montana State University political science professor Jerry W. Calvert. “That runs parallel to Tester’s big blowout in Missoula and Silver Bow counties. In fact, the only place Tester performed below expectations was Cascade County.” (Tester had a 158-vote edge over Burns there.)

Jon Bennion, a longtime Montana political historian and author of Big Sky Politics: Campaigns and Elections in Modern Montana, says that as the population of the state continues to shift from east to west, Missoula County is becoming an ever more important battleground for statewide office seekers.

“I think Missoula definitely did turn out big for the Democrat, as it typically does,” Bennion says, adding that the margin has increasingly widened in Democrats’ favor in recent election cycles.

While Missoula has long been a Democratic stronghold, that preference has increased dramatically over the past four election cycles that Burns was on the ballot. In 1988, the year Burns defeated incumbent Sen. John Melcher, Burns lost Missoula County by a margin of only 2,142 votes. In 1994 Democratic challenger Jack Mudd garnered a mere 1,880-vote advantage over Burns. But in 2000, when then Senate-hopeful Brian Schweitzer mounted one of the toughest campaigns to unseat Burns, Missoula delivered big, handing Schweitzer a 9,618-vote advantage.

The Missoula margin increased by more than 4,000 votes this time around.

“Not only was the margin bigger, but it’s a big county and the largest media market in the state,” McKenna says. “Missoula is critically important in any race. If Republicans want to win a statewide office, they don’t have to win Missoula, but they’re going to need to get at least 40 percent.”

Burns netted barely 34 percent of the vote in Missoula County, a factor that likely cost him the election, says Bennion:

“Republicans almost never carry Missoula County, but when the margin gets to be that big, it gets to be really hard to make up for it in other parts of the state.”

Bennion says he sensed an “atypical energy” among Tester supporters in the months leading up to the election, a phenomenon he credits to Tester’s hard and repeated campaigning in the Garden City. Burns, on the other hand, was all but invisible in Missoula County. He refused to debate Tester here, and short of a few handshake appearances at events like the University of Montana homecoming parade, he held no major rallies or fundraisers in Missoula County.

J.P. Pendleton, Burns’ director of communications, says candidates will have to take Montana’s shifting demographics into consideration when running future statewide races.

“Yellowstone County [home to Billings] has historically been the bellwether, but I think the population shift to the western part of the state has started to change that,” Pendleton says. “It used to be that you had to win Yellowstone County in order to win an election. Now you can’t assume anything.”

And if recent electoral trends continue as the county continues to grow, Missoula is set to become an even more powerful force in future elections.

“Republicans cannot ignore that, and Democrats can increasingly look toward that county to produce those results,” Bennion says.

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