The Disappearing Ticket-Splitter

Montanans ushered in the most unified conservative government in at least 16 years. Here's how it happened.

By Kellyn Brown

Montana’s reputation as an independent-minded ticket splitter took a big hit last week as a red wave buoyed Republicans to victory in every statewide race, from governor to the U.S. Senate to the U.S. House. At once, the GOP maintained its strong grip on the state Legislature, ushering in the most unified conservative government in at least 16 years.

Sixteen years. That, of course, was the last time the state had a Republican in the governor’s mansion. It’s part of what made Montana an anomaly — a curiosity that attracted national news correspondents to flyover country. Many of them would ask the same question:

“How can a state that voted for Trump by more than 20 points in 2016 comfortably reelect the incumbent Democratic governor that same year and a Democratic U.S. senator in 2018?”

Well, a lot can happen in a few years. And the makeup of Montana’s 2020 electorate looks far different than it once did. For one, it’s substantially larger. On Election Day 604,650 residents voted, an increase of nearly 90,000 from 2016 when about 517,000 turned out. That’s an astonishing and unprecedented jump.

And as voters turned out in droves, far fewer split their tickets. That was perhaps most evident in the state’s most populous county, Yellowstone, home to Billings and 81,126 ballots in this year’s general election, or about 10,000 more than four years ago.

That year, in 2016, those residents overwhelming chose President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 28 points, 60-32. But they were divided on their choice for governor. Republican Greg Gianforte, in his first run for the office, edged incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by just one point. Votes in that race split by 27 points. Bullock was reelected.

Fast-forward four years and Yellowstone County looks completely different. Its residents favored Trump by a still-healthy margin of 23 points but abandoned the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who appeared on Bullock’s ticket four years prior. This time, Gianforte trounced Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney by 19 points.

Maybe voters there simply liked Bullock better than Cooney? Wrong.

In the costliest race in state history between incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Bullock, Daines won the county by 17 points. There were simply far fewer ticket splitters than four years ago and the result is a state that now looks a lot more like neighboring Wyoming and North Dakota. Except we’ll have legal weed.

Montana, like just about everywhere else, is more polarized than ever. And looking at numbers from the state’s liberal bastion of Missoula, it’s clear the feeling is bipartisan.

There, in 2016, the county favored Bullock by 34 points but Clinton by just 15. This year, Cooney won by 25 points and Joe Biden beat Trump by about the same margin.

The final statewide vote reflects the fact that there are more Republican leaners than Democratic leaners in Montana. When those leaners lean further right and further left, they are likelier to vote a straight party ticket. And that’s what happened.

The result is one-party rule similar to most other states in the country. It also may close the book on the Montana-is-independent-minded narrative.

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