Lessons of Montana

I’m trying not to get sucked back into political blogging. It consumed my life and my health back in the early uh-ohs. However, some aspects of the recent Montana special election are picking at me. I’m going to try to stay mostly in a political science mode.

The 2016 election was shocking for what it unmasked, but it is also mesmerizing for what it is unleashing. The critical feature of it is the tacit acknowledgement by all but the most partisan media that restoration of normalcy lies in the hands (and electoral success) of the Democrats. The Republican party has abandoned any claim to being a center-right party and is simply a force of reaction, revanchism and kleptocracy. The Democrats are needed to restore law and rationality to the nation. Thus, we’re left with this odd political punditry where the Republican’s success is unremarkable while Democratic losses are the occasion of lamenting and armchair quarterbacking over their “failure”.

Despite being majority vote getters, gerrymandering prevents Democrats from claiming an equitable number of seats. The extreme left derides anything short of “revolutionary” politics despite its own woeful electoral performance and its hazy grasp of how politics intersects with a globalized economy. This is standard operating procedure, their game book relatively unchanged since the early 1900s.

Thus, there was a great deal of handwringing when Quist lost to Gianforte yesterday, with more than the usual bloviating. Sandernistas squall about the lack of support from national Democratic PACs, though there is some confusion as to how much Quist requested assistance (most online stories claim he rejected national aid) and how much money was provided (I’ve heard everything from none to $600K from DCCC). Resistance Democrats lob jeers about Sanders’ toxic effect on the race (though it’s unclear how much effect he had) and the futility of funding hopeless causes in deep red states (though Montana has a history of electing Democrats a decent percent of the time). All is complicated by Hillary’s brilliant and uplifting Wellesley commencement address which has set detractors and defenders into a new round of online warfare.

Simply put, does it make more sense for Democrats to foreground the corruption and potential treason of the Trump administration or should they be promoting aggressive social agenda issues, the two biggest being “single payer” and a guaranteed basic income?

I’d say the answer is yes, but more on that in a minute. Let’s look at what happened in Montana, and pay attention to some significant raw numbers and percentages.

First of all, the baseline needs to be the presidential election in November. I’m not going to count in 3rd party stuff. There were 456,949 votes cast, 279,240 for Trump, 177,709 for Hillary. That’s about a 2-1 split, 61% to DJT and 39% for HRC, for a 22 point spread.

In the special election, there were 355,956 votes cast, 189,473 for Gianforte, 166,483 for Quist. That’s more a 3-2 split, 53% to Gianforte, 47% to Quist, for a 6 point spread.

The Sandernista take on this is that Quist was more popular than HRC (6 points difference vs. 22 points), and that more money from national Democratic organizations could have brought about the win. Resistance takes are that Quist couldn’t beat the brutal thug Gianforte, that Sanders’ participation turned off voters, and that resources are wasted in such a red state.

I think there was probably no way for Quist as a candidate to have won. He was not in the mode of other winning Democrats for that area, and Montana is not just more red than in years past, but more radical and tribal on the Republican side. Gianforte’s attack on the journalist might have cost him a percentage of the vote but was probably balanced by those who enjoy authoritarian behavior. Overall, a wash. Bernie was probably less important than either side thinks he is, whether for good or ill. Those who approve of him liked Quist’s ties to him; those who don’t and who are Democrats mostly turned out because they just vote the party. He may have had more effect on the candidate selection than on the final vote, but I don’t know enough about how Quist won that to comment.

The important number here is the one that’s underreported – the party attrition rate between the general election and the special election. The Secretary of State for MT notes that this special election had the largest turn out for such an election in state history. It was only 22% smaller than the general. The reason Quist did so well is because the Democrats voted at an unprecedentedly higher level than usual in a special election. He got fewer votes than Hillary, but not by much, only 7% less, when the overall turnout was 22% down. Gianforte, in contrast, polled 32% lower than DJT. Quist’s loss margin was so low mostly because Gianforte’s turnout was crappy compared to his.

There were a lot more Democrats motivated to vote as a percentage of their voting pool than there were Republicans. In absolute numbers, they weren’t enough for victory. With a stronger candidate, it might have worked, as it did for Steve Bullock to win the governorship over Gianforte in November.

So, would a different message or more money have made the difference? Hard to tell. Two money numbers are getting bandied about, though I suspect both of them are too low for actual spends. Gianforte is supposed to have spent $5,600,000 on the campaign, while Quist is supposed to have spent about $656,425. Since I have seen reports of Quist getting $600K from Dem PACs and others saying he had over a million in ad buys, I’m a bit skeptical of either number, but it is clear that Quist was outspent. Given the numbers above, Gianforte spent $29.56 for each recorded vote, while Quist spent $3.94 for his. If single digit wins by Republicans in safe districts have that kind of price tag differential on them, even some moderate spending increases in competitive races look to yield good results for Democrats.

What about message? I’m going to do this in a reverse manner. Trump did not get wins in key states because he turned out the vote. His vote totals were lower than Mitt Romney’s. He got wins because Hillary’s votes were depressed in those states. Part of that can be ascribed to voter suppression. I personally think this was the deciding factor in the Midwest because the wins were razor thin. His victory required disenfranchisement of the most loyal Democrats. But what is also true is the unrelenting negative messaging depressed white educated votes for her or encouraged defection to 3rd parties. Negative messaging doesn’t cause a meaningful fraction of voters to vote for you – it discourages voting for the opponent.

Running more heavily on Trump’s increasingly questionable foreign connections and tying a candidate to that mess will suppress turnout among centrist and wavering Republicans. Doing the same with hot-button issues, in particular health insurance, can be hung both on Trump and directly on the congress critters who voted for it, will do the same. State level office may also be affected by a penumbra of corruption. In a district like Montana, it may not be enough to cause a seat change, but it will force expenditures and may make it easier to retain the seats Democrats have. It will keep Republicans on the defensive.

In less red districts, it will result in flipped seats up and down the ballot.

What probably won’t work is running exclusively or even primarily on social change arguments. People are motivated more by losing what they already have than by imagining what more they might get by taking a risk. Politics is not about policy or programs. It’s about power and control of institutions. The reward for holding power is the ability to set agendas and enact policy.

So, the takeaway from Montana is Democrats are fighting mad and very much inclined to use the ballot box to throw the rascals out. Aggressive use of Trump’s scandals and corruption combined with similarly aggressive measure to circumvent vote suppression should yield wins, and they may be much less costly for us than for the GOP to defend the indefensible.





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