Poll Shows Close Race Between Tester, Sheehy; Neutral Approval Rating for Gianforte

About 56% of people polled said they would support Trump in November, compared to 35% who said they would support Biden

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
U.S. Senator Jon Tester speaks at Logan Healthcare in Kalispell on March 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

New polling results released Wednesday show Democratic Sen. Jon Tester with a narrow, but statistically insignificant, lead over Republican Tim Sheehy in a theoretical matchup eight months before Election Day, and also that Gov. Greg Gianforte has a neutral approval rating as he starts his re-election bid.

The Emerson College Polling/The Hill poll also shows former President Donald Trump with a wide lead over President Joe Biden in what is almost certain to be the presidential matchup, and signals that a subset of Montana voters is considering voting for both Trump and Tester come November.

The poll was conducted Feb. 26 through March 2 via text message-to-web and email polling, along with an online survey of voters. The sample includes 1,000 registered Montana voters weighted based on turnout and voter registration data, along with voters’ gender, age, party, race and education, though one-tenth of respondents also said they did not vote in 2020. Fifty-seven of those who did not vote four years ago are in the 18-29 age range.

The poll is the first Emerson College has released on Montana since last October, and thus the first to include candidates that have formally filed for the election.

Tester leads Sheehy 44% to 42%, with 14% undecided in the latest poll. In October, with a smaller sample size and larger margin of error, Tester led Sheehy 39% to 35%, indicating more undecided voters have made up their minds in the months since.

But looking into the crosstabs, the poll shows Tester leads among independent voters by 10% and that about 14% of Republican respondents to the poll said they would support Tester over Sheehy. It shows only about 7% of Democratic respondents would support Sheehy.

A similar share of people (14%) said they would vote for both Trump and Tester, while only 2% of Biden voters said they would support Sheehy in November. Biden and Trump are the presumptive presidential nominees for their parties; Tester does not have a primary challenger, while former Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson is also running in the Republican primary against Sheehy.

About 56% of people polled said they would support Trump in November, compared to 35% who said they would support Biden and 9% who said they were still undecided. Trump leads Biden among independents by nearly 13 percentage points and by 90 percentage points among Republicans. Biden leads Trump among Democrats by 78%, according to the poll data.

Biden’s approval rating is also far underwater, with 62% of respondents saying they disapprove of the job he is doing as president, compared to 28% who approved in the poll. Among independents, Biden’s favorability rating is nearly 36 percentage points underwater in Montana.

Emerson College Polling Executive Director Spencer Kimball said the support for Trump mirrors the 57% of the vote he took home in 2020, while Biden’s support is down from the 41% of the vote he received that year. Kimball said Trump’s lead over Biden mirrors the gap by which Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Montana in 2016.

The poll found that 68% of respondents, including 42% of Democrats and 69% of independents, see Biden’s age as an issue when considering voting for him. And half of respondents said Trump’s criminal indictments make them worried about voting for him, including 19% of Republicans and 55% of independents.

The poll also looked into Gianforte’s approval rating, the top issues Montana voters are thinking about heading into the election, and asked respondents hypothetical questions about which type of values they would support in a candidate if faced with choosing one over another.

Gianforte’s approval rating is neutral – 37% approved and disapproved of the job he was doing running Montana – but 41% of respondents said they think Montana is on the wrong track, compared to 31% who said it is on the right track.

Sixteen percent of Republicans disapproved of Gianforte’s performance, while 12% of Democrats approved of it. Among independents, 33% said they approved of the job the governor was doing, while 38% said they disapproved.

Forty-two percent of women said they disapproved of Gianforte’s performance, compared to 31% who approved, while among men, 45% approve and 32% disapprove, per the poll.

On the direction the state is headed, 31% of Republicans and 38% of independents said they felt the state was on the wrong track, along with 61% of Democrats. Just 24% of independents said the state is on the right track, along with 43% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats.

Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras will face off with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Busse and his lieutenant governor pick, Raph Graybill.

Though inflation has slowed in recent months and the economy continues to outperform forecasts in terms of employment and jobs, 27% of respondents said the economy was the top issue facing Montana in the poll. Housing affordability was right behind, at 26%, after several years of steep increases in housing prices and the sharp spikes in property taxes for most of Montana this year after lawmakers failed to lower the property tax assessment rate last session.

Among respondents under age 40, 32% said housing affordability was the top issue. The economy was the top issue for voters over age 40.

Coming in behind the economy and housing affordability, other top issues for Montanans this election were threats to democracy (11%), immigration (9%), healthcare (9%), crime (6%), education (5%) and abortion access (4%).

Next Monday is the deadline for candidates for 2024 to file with the Secretary of State’s Office, and the primary election is slated for June 4.

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.