There was speculation among those milling around the Flathead County Courthouse on the night of the primary elections that several Democratic voters must have “crossed over.” The Republican ballot, after all, featured more closely contested races and every candidate who filed in the sheriff’s race. But that alone doesn’t explain the staggering discrepancy.
In Flathead County, the number voting Republican outnumbered those voting Democratic four to one: 80.13 percent to 19.87 percent – or 13,262 to 3,288. Sure, a few were likely attracted to the GOP’s ballot, but it is also an example of a real enthusiasm gap in this county and statewide.
Across Montana, more than twice as many voters filled out Republican ballots as Democratic ones and, as the state GOP was quick to point out, incumbent Congressman Denny Rehberg received almost four times as many votes as his primary opponent Dennis McDonald.
To put the numbers into context, let’s flashback to the 2008 primary, when the Democratic ballot that included Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was – by far – considered the more attractive option, offering Montana voters the rare chance to participate in a historic decision. Remember, that was the first year state Republicans chose to pick their presidential nominee at a caucus several months prior to the primary.
In that election, far more Democratic ballots were filled out statewide than Republican, about twice as many in the presidential race alone. Even in conservative Flathead County, the parties were about even in voter turnout, based solely on the number of ballots returned. Certainly a high number of Montanans crossed over, but the 2008 election was still a boon for Democrats.
While Obama narrowly lost the state to John McCain in the general election, the Democrats won the top five statewide offices: governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction. The winners of those races should be glad they aren’t up for reelection this year.
It’s hard to predict how the primary numbers could translate into the general, but the numbers look downright scary for Democrats. In the swing districts of Gallatin County, four times as many residents voted Republican as Democrats. Again, some voters reportedly crossed over to partake in the GOP county commission race. But that doesn’t explain the lopsided returns.
In the liberal stronghold of Missoula County, more people voted Democrat than Republican. The problem is no one voted. Missoula’s turnout of 20.5 percent was by far the lowest in the state and the county actually cast fewer votes than the Flathead, despite the fact that it is home to 20,000 more people.
Pundits have suggested that the so-called enthusiasm gap will benefit Republicans this November, while some primary numbers trickling in nationwide have complicated that thesis. In states like Kentucky, Oregon and Arkansas, GOP turnout has been less than stellar. While in states like North Carolina, Ohio and Montana, Democrats have stayed home.
Predicting the balance of the U.S. Congress is still arduous and the Republicans’ hopes of retaking the House are far from certain. But at the local level, the GOP must feel confident that it can swing the state Legislature, which was about evenly split during the last session, in its direction.
The U.S. House is the marquee race on the ballot this year and few believe Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald will be able to topple incumbent Denny Rehberg. So if the Democrats turn out, it will be to vote on local and legislative races. If the primary is any indication, they won’t. And Montana’s state house could shift decidedly to the right.
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