July 25th is the date of two special election primaries in Miami-Dade County. The specials are a result of the resignation of Republican Senator Frank Artiles. Artiles was forced to resign before the end of the spring legislative session when news broke of racially-charged language and cursing he directing at African-American lawmakers. Artiles remained defiant in the wake of calls for resignation for a few days, but eventually quit.
The special election for Montana’s At-Large seat is upon us. The election was triggered by Donald Trump appointing Congressman Zinke as Interior Secretary, leaving a seat up for grabs that Democrats have not held since 1996. The seat has attracted money and interest, but Republicans, aiming to avoid a shock result, have been the largest spenders in the race. Republicans are running Greg Gianforte, a businessman who narrowly lost a Gubernatorial bid last year. Democrats are running Rob Quist, a folk singer who falls into the Bernie Sander’s wing of the party. Quist has run an aggressive campaign while Gianforte has relied more on money and paid advertising. Polling has put Gianforte in first, with wide variations from small to modest. Montana was solid for Trump in 2016, but its history of voting Democrat for Governor and Senator, coupled with Trump’s falling approvals, mean nothing can be taken for granted.
Montana is sparsely populated, but does host some key population centers. Only seven cities have a populations over 20,000 people. Much of Montana’s population is in the western part of the state while the east remains much more rural.
A super-simple summary of these cities/areas is as follows
- Missoula — home to University of Missoula, solid democratic area
- Butte — old mining and union town
- Bozeman — growing city, tourism site, white-collar, high educated
- Billings — site of large growth by rich people moving in out of state
- Helena — Capital, more Republican/swing area, home to lots of outdoor recreation
- Great Falls — rust-belt style city that has seen declining economy
- Kalispell — trading port city
Montana is also one of the whitest states in the nation. The largest non-white group is Native Americans, which are clustered in assorted reservations in the state.
Montana was solid for Trump in 2016, giving him an over 20% margin. Clinton’s wins where clustered in the west and along the Indian Reservations. Clinton won in Bozeman, a booming city with a growing white-collar and a major tourist destination (close to Big Sky), and Missoula, home to the University of Missoula. Clinton won in Butte, an older union, mining-town region but by a narrow margin.
While Clinton was losing Montana by 20 points, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was winning by four. Bullock won the counties hosting Great Falls and Helena and only narrowly lost in Yellowstone, home to Billings. Bullock racked up much stronger wins in Butte and did better out west.
Bullock’s win was just by winning more counties, he outperformed Clinton across the state. Bullock did over 15% better in many counties in the western part of the state, with a very rural counties in the east staying stead-fast GOP.
Obama’s 2012 run in Montana was not strong, though he did win more counties than Clinton. His 15 point loss was much weaker than his 2008 run, where he came very close to taking the state.
In 2008, Obama won more counties than he did in 2012, but he also had narrower margins in counties he lost. Like any state, its not just about winning key population centers, but also keeping margins as low as possible in the rural regions.
Below is each county and how they voted in key recent elections, sorted by total votes cast in 2016. Just a handful of counties control a majority of the vote in Montana.
Montana’s East-West Split
People who study Montana’s politics and culture note a distinct east-west divide in the state. Eastern Montana is much more rural and like the great plains, losing population every census. Western Montana, dominated by the Rocky Mountains, is home to most of the states tourist hot-spots. The region is growing, the site of retirees and young workers, with a growing population. Population projects show the east continuing to lose population and the west on track to keep gaining people.
The western portion of the state is also much more educated than the east, with more and more residents holding bachelors degrees.
Compare the education map to a map showing how the partisan margin for President between 2012 and 2016 shifted.
As was seen in the rest of the nation, there was a clear correlation between how the Presidential votes shifted and the education/economy of an area.
The Democratic margin improved in one county, the one with the highest Bachelor’s degree %. The GOP margin, meanwhile, improved in many counties with lower-education, often sites of mines that do or did dot the west (Map from Montana Mining Association).
Democrat’s weakening in the mining and working class areas are part of a nationwide trend. While Clinton performed weak in these areas, Bullock managed to do better, aiding his re-election.
The combination of old union, mining towns and a growing educated population have continued a long trend of Western Montana being more Democratic than the east.
Until 1992, Montana had two congressional districts, with the western 1st district held by a Democrat, and the eastern 2nd held by a Republican. When Montana lost a seat in 1992, the two congressmen went against each-other for that At-Large seat. Democrat Williams won by a 3% while winning his old district and losing the 2nd.
Looking at several recent election in Montana broken down by the old 1st and 2nd district, the political split in the state is clear. The old 2nd district is solidly Republican while the first leans Democratic.
Clinton under-performed in the West, but tanked by record levels in the east. Clinton’s drop in mining, working-class areas gave her one of the weakest showing in the west for any high-profile race. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Jon Tester only narrowly lost in the east in his 2012 re-election. The east and west often produce large splits in how they vote, but Tester’s 2012 win saw the lowest split thanks to his strength in the east. Democrats may under-perform in the east, but they still can keep things close, as Tester demonstrates.
The east/west split is worth keeping an eye on for the future. Montana has narrowly missed out on a 2nd district in the last two censuses and still stands in the running for 2020. A split in Montana could produce a western district more favorable to Democrats. The line’s would be different from 1992 (the west is too over-populated now) — but any western variation (absent an aggressive gerrymander) would be in play for Democrats.
Montana is often written off in the political conversation most of the time, lumped in with deep red states like Idaho or Wyoming. However, Montana’s politics are much more complex than other parts of the region. The state’s east-west divide is real and the state’s history of electing Democrats mean nothing can be written off.
The special election in the Kansas 4th district is not supposed to be on anyone’s radar. When Donald Trump picked Congressman Mike Pompeo to be his CIA director, ratings for the special election started at “Safe R.” The district is solid red, voting for Trump by 27 points. It includes Wichita and several rural farm counties. Both party candidates where chosen at local conventions, with Democrats choosing James Thompson, an attorney and avowed progressive and Republicans choosing State Treasurer Ron Estes.
Last week, the Florida House passed a bill creating 12 year term limits for Supreme Court Justices. Florida justices already must retire around or shortly after their 70th birthday and face a retention election every 6 years. The main argument for the term limits proposal was that justices have never lost their retention votes, making them less checked than the other chambers of FL government. The Florida legislature’s conflicts with the FL Supreme Court are well documented in FL politics.
Donald Trump has problems with many different blocks if voters. He is a bogyman to Hispanics, despised by African-Americans, and off-putting to college educated and suburban whites. However, to me the most fascinating of Trump’s problems is with Mormon Americans, a group that is traditional one of the strongest for the GOP, but this time remains very much in up in the air. There has been plenty written about why Trump is so unpopular with Mormons. His vulgar nature and lifestyle certainly earn him few supporters. However, a bigger factor is his demonizing of Muslims and anti-immigrant sentiment. Mormons have shown to be more pro-immigration and weary of candidates that demonize groups of people. This stems from Mormon mission trips abroad and their own history with being persecuted. The result has been a major voting block in Utah and Idaho holding sky-high disapprovals of the GOP nominee, putting at least one of these states into a weird state of play.
Mormon in the Western Primaries
Trump’s problems with Mormon voters stretch back into the primary season. While Trump managed to do respectably with evangelicals in other states, especially in the South, he ran into a major roadblock in the West. Ted Cruz crushed Trump in the Utah caucuses. Cruz got 69% in Utah, with Kasich at 16% and Trump in third with 14%. A few weeks earlier, in the Idaho Primary, Trump lost to Cruz 45-28%. Utah is over 60% Mormon, while Idaho is a solid 25%. With around 80% of Mormons leaning Republicans, the GOP caucus/primaries in these states were no doubt more Mormon than average. Exact religious figures are always tricky to come by. However, I was able to track down Mormon estimates by county for Utah and Idaho. Looking at the Mormon estimates by county and Trump’s share of the vote in the Utah/Idaho contests, it’s clear Trump had a serious Mormon problem in the primaries.
Trump did best in Western Idaho, where few Mormon reside. Meanwhile, he failed to clear 20% in most heavily-Mormon counties and didn’t even crack 10% in Utah County, home to Brigham Young University.
Looking at the Mormon population next to the complete results of the Idaho/Caucus contests, Trump’s only wins were in counties with smaller Mormon populations. Trump also fell into 3rd in many heavily-Mormon counties.
Someone who has not seen recent polling in Utah may be thinking “ok so they don’t like him. But Mormon’s are super Republican, so they will still vote for the GOP nominee right?” Well you are right about one thing, Mormon’s are very Republican. Mitt Romney received around 80% of the Mormon vote in 2012, as did George W Bush in 2004. Both Idaho and Utah were solidly Republican in 2012 and 2008.
While Obama managed to snag a few counties out of Utah in 2008, amid a blue wave, he still couldn’t crack 35%. In 2008, Obama clawed his way to 36% in Idaho.
The bottom line is, Utah and Idaho are too conservative to vote Clinton over Trump. While Mormon voters may not like Trump, their conservative ideology will only bend so far, so Utah/Idaho continued their tradition of being effectively ignored in the general election through the spring and summer.
Then Evan McMullin came along.
A Mormon Alternative
Evan McMullin announced is presidential candidacy months before anyone really took notice. McMullin was a former CIA operations manager and House GOP staffer. His ideology is similar to George W Bush and he represents a more standard establishment conservative. McMullin ran to give establishment conservatives and alternative option. However, with little name ID or money McMullin’s candidacy has not taken off across much of the nation. McMullin got in late and only managed to get on the ballot in 11 states. However, two of those were Idaho and Utah. McMullin himself is Mormon and went to Brigham Young University. It seemed that if McMullin was going to have any real impact, it would be in Utah and Eastern Idaho.
Still for some time, McMullin’s candidacy wasn’t factored in. He wasn’t included in polls for Utah, despite polls showing a large undecided vote. When McMullin finally started getting included in polls around September, he was polling in the 20s. Controversy with Trump over the Access Hollywood tape and his poor debate performance further boosted McMullin, who began to make Utah is main focus. An Emerson poll in mid-October even had McMullin leading in Utah with 31%. In the pollster averages, McMullin still hovered in 3rd, neck and neck with Clinton for 2nd. On the 538 podcast, Nate Silver said his model could be underestimating McMullin, and the way pollsters included McMullin their surveys could effect the results. The 538 polls-only model projects McMullin in 2nd place with Trump getting less than 40%.
Unfortunately for McMullin, his growth seems to have flat-lined. A new Emerson poll puts Trump back in the lead, and McMullin has not moved past 30% in the pollsters’ averages. McMullin hasn’t really lost ground, but he hasn’t gained enough to pull ahead permanently. The Trump campaign has taken the threat seriously though, as Mike Pence was dispatched to Utah to sure up conservatives there. A white nationalist group also sent out a robo call in Utah accusing McMullin of being gay.
McMullin’s rough path to a 1st place in Utah is twofold. First, McMullin is not winning the Mormon vote. The recent Monmouth poll in Utah showed McMullin getting 37% of Mormons to Trumps 43%, with Clinton getting 14%. Among non-Mormons (which would include liberals and conservative evangelicals that are not Mormon), McMullin only gets 7%. Conservatives in general back Trump. It is Mormons specifically that McMullin has strength with. However, if McMullin is narrowly trailing Trump with Mormons, then he can’t win Utah. McMullin would need a solid Mormon win in order to combat Trump’s strength with non-Mormon conservatives.
To be clear, Trump has not really improved his standing with Mormon’s. In Utah, Trump has a 67% disapproval statewide, 61% with Mormons. However, Clinton stands at an 81% Mormon disapproval, making her even less liked than Trump. McMullin is the only candidate to sport a net-favorable with Mormons, but over 40% don’t know enough to form an opinion. This is McMullin’s biggest problem, he is out of time and money to move those undecideds into the favorable column.
Trump’s weakness with Mormons is poised to result in him getting a dramatically lower share of the vote than other Republicans on the ballot. The Monmouth poll gave him 37% of the vote, while Senator Lee and Governor Herbert are both over 60%.
Clinton’s vote share is roughly the same as the Democratic candidates for Senate and Governor. The Democratic vote remains fairly united in Utah. It is hard to see Clinton doing much better than the low 30s. McMullin’s candidacy, taking away Mormons that are otherwise backing Lee and Herbert, is what keeps Trump below the 40s. Trump has a big Mormon problem, but it just might not be big enough to stop him from winning such a conservative state.
Where Can McMullin Do Best?
Let’s say McMullin can’t win Utah. Can he win some counties? If he does, he will be the first third-party candidate to win a county since Ross Perot.
The best counties for McMullin will undoubtedly be those with the largest Mormon population. McMullin’s weakness with non-Mormons make any county without a large Mormon base likely out of range. McMullin would then need to win a majority of Mormons in specific counties to get onto the map. The Utah Monmouth poll has Trump narrowly leading McMullin with Mormons that plan to vote GOP, while a recent Idaho poll by Emerson has Trump and McMullin tied among GOP-leaning Mormons.
In Idaho, McMullin’s tie with Mormon’s is translating into 10% of the vote. The Mormon vote is too small to allow a McMullin upset win (or even a 2nd place finish). However, McMullin could take some Idaho Counties if he wins the undecided Mormons in the state.
To get a feel for how counties could break in the election, let’s look at the voting dynamics in Utah and Idaho by county, specifically the counties with the highest share of GOP-backing Mormons.
When Romney ran in 2012, he got 80% of the Mormon vote. As stated before, this was similar to George W Bush’s share, so it was not just a symptom of Romney being Mormon himself. Mormon’s have long been a solid GOP voting bloc. In Idaho and Utah, there are effectively three key voting blocs, Mormons that vote GOP, GOP voters that are not Mormon, and the Democratic vote (including the Dem-leaning Mormons). For the purposes of this analysis, I am just going to assume Clinton will get the same share of the vote Obama got in 2012 (which was lower than his 2008 share). She could fall, but she is polling ahead of Obama’s 2012 share. So if anything I’m being conservative. I then took the estimated Mormon share of each county, and assuming Romney got 80% of Mormons in each county (imperfect, I know), calculated the share of the vote that was Mormons for Romney, then the share of the vote that was non-Mormons for Romney (with the remaining being Obama/other).
The maps below show the share of the vote in each county that was Mormons for Romney and non-Mormons for Romney.
The maps conform with what we have seen already. Western Idaho is very conservative but not very Mormon, meanwhile most of Utah and Eastern Idaho are where Mormons who backed Romney. Only a few counties in both states didn’t have high shares of Romney backers (gave decent shares to Obama), and are green on both maps.
For McMullin, counties where the electorate is largely non-Mormons that voted Romney are not really in play for him. McMullin’s best chance is the counties made up of 60% or more Romney-backing Mormons.
I ran some numbers and have two scenarios. One scenario is McMullin manages to get to 50% of Romney-backing Mormons. The other scenario is where McMullin gets to 60% of GOP-backing Mormons. In both scenarios I have Clinton getting Obama’s % from 2012, and Trump getting 80% of the non-Mormon vote that Romney got.
If McMullin gets 60% of GOP-Mormons in Utah and Idaho, he will net several counties. However, if he only manages a tie, he gets none. Clinton will likely win more counties than Obama thanks to the GOP split.
At this point, unless the polling is off, McMullin getting 60% of GOP-Mormons is not likely. However, he could get 60% in specific counties. If I had to bet on one county McMullin has a real shot at winning, it would be Utah County, where McMullin went to school and Trump got 9% in the Utah Caucuses.
McMullin may or may not make it onto the map in Utah or Idaho. Either way, he is poised to have a strong 3rd party showing. The results out of Utah and eastern Idaho will no doubt be analyzed and debated. The sheer fact that we are even discussing these normally solid-GOP states shows that for some groups, Trumpism is a bridge to far.
The US Senate Primary for the Democratic Party was a landslide with for Patrick Murphy. Murphy got 59% of the vote, with Alan Grayson, the disgraced congressman, down at 17%. Murphy won by dominated the Southeast counties and performed strong in Tampa Bay. Grayson managed to hold the Orlando area, where he has been a fixture for a decade.
On the night before the 2014 Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, I correctly predicted that Nan Rich would do best in the rural panhandle of Florida. My prediction was based off a recent history of unknown candidates doing very well in the panhandle as a way of conservative, southern democrats casting protest votes. My logic was simple: conservative rural democrats in these counties show up to vote for local offices, where Democrats still maintain control, but reject the well-known Democrats for top-of-the-ballot races because they plan to vote GOP in the fall.
On the August 30th ballot, for the first time in Florida’s history, there will be a primary for a minor party nomination for US Senate. Candidates Augustus Invictus and Paul Stanton are set to face off. The race will only be on the ballot of registered libertarians, who only make up just over 26,000 of the state’s 12.3 million registered voters.
Every since Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, the Republican caucus has been more fractured and divided than anytime in modern history. The wave of new Congresspeople featured many “Tea Party” politicians than ran and won on bucking the establishment. However, GOP leaders soon realized that the “establishment” did just refer to Obama and Democrats, but GOP leaders themselves. For the last five years, Speaker Boehner and now Speaker Ryan have had to deal with the unruly “Freedom Caucus” — a collection of tea-party politicians who often refuse to compromise on legislation. The Freedom Caucus has forced the GOP establishment to turn to Democrats for must-pass measures on more than one occasion. Boehner saw his leadership challenged several times and even Ryan has had to watch his back.
Establishment Strikes Back and the Farm Bill
The GOP’s internal division has spilled out into the campaigns. Establishment candidates have faced primaries from more conservative candidates. However, the establishment wing of the GOP has begun to fight back. Last year, the Chamber of Commerce announced it would take on GOP incumbents that effectively stood in the way of governing. Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp fit the model of a congressman the establishment forced of the GOP would target. He was a prominent Freedom Congress member that backed a challenge to Boehner for Speaker. His antics cost him his seat on the Agriculture Committee, a coveted seat considering his district, the Kansas 1st, has more farmers than any in the country. In addition to this loss of a committee assignment, Huelskamp angered voters in his district by opposing the Farm Bill, a large bi-partisan bill that is key for farmers to maintain their livelihood.
Huelskamp almost lost his 2014 primary due to his antics. He only got 56% of the vote in a race against an opponent that didn’t have nearly the same level of backing his 2016 opponent received.
The 2016 Campaign
When 2016 came around, there was a concerted effort to finally oust Huelskamp. Opposition rallied around Roger Marshall, a physician. Marshall had the financial backing of major agriculture organizations and the Chamber of Commerce. Huelskamp had the Koch Brothers on his side, but Marshall had more 3rd party money backing him than the incumbent. Farm issues was center to the campaign, with the Kansas Farm Bureau backing Marshall and attacking the incumbent for his opposition to farm issues and his removal from the Agriculture Committee. The narrative of the campaign was that Huelskamp’s attitude made him ineffective and he put purity over getting things done to help his district. The primary was expected to be close, but in the end, Marshall won comfortably.
Huelskamp lost a vast majority of the counties in his district. He only won big in Meade, his home county, and its neighbors. Compared to his 2014 election, he lost ground in all by two counties.
Huelskamp is the only congressman to lose his primary this year that isn’t due to redistricting or scandal. At the end of the day, voters decided they wanted someone who could be effective for their district.
Probably the most amusing portion of the evening was when this photo surfaced on twitter. Apparently former Speaker Boehner had received word of Huelskamp’s fate.
I get a sense a similar smile was on Speaker Ryan’s face as well.