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Updated 12:41 AM May 26, 2017

What Went Down In The Montana Special Election

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What Went Down In The Montana Special Election May 25 By
12:41 AM
That’s A Wrap

Gianforte leads by about 7 percentage points as we wrap up this live blog. The numbers will shift around a bit — Montana takes a long time to finalize its vote — but we should wind up somewhere in that range, which we can call the mid-to-high single digits. Here’s what I wrote about such an outcome before results began to come in:

Gianforte wins by 5 to 10 points. An outcome in this range would likely trigger a lot of debate among pundits. A few weeks ago, it would probably have been regarded as a good result for Democrats. But to the extent that expectations matter, Republicans had done a better job of managing them even before the body-slam incident. So this might be interpreted as a fairly poor result for Democrats, even though it could be a pretty good one by the numbers.

In other words, I think we’re in for a lot of “hot takes,” rather than a consensus about what the results mean.

Our vantage point is that we’re mostly looking at special elections in terms of how they might predict 2018. A night where Democrats are losing Montana by “only” 6 or 7 points is consistent with the sort of map you might see if Democrats were either taking over the House or coming pretty close to it.

On the other hand, our expectations were already pretty high for Democrats. The opposition party — the party that doesn’t hold the White House — usually does well in midterm elections. And Trump is not a popular guy. The Democrats have plenty of issues, like the GOP’s unpopular health care bill, to campaign on. This isn’t complicated stuff. You’d expect them to do pretty well under such circumstances and to have a decent shot — let’s call it 50 percent to 60 percent — of taking over the House.

This result in Montana doesn’t change our priors much, therefore. Furthermore, it’s a somewhat quirky race, given that Quist and (especially) Gianforte both have their issues as candidates and that Montana has been a little bit more competitive in congressional and statewide races than in races for the presidency. Quist winning by 1 or losing by 13 might have called for a recalibration of our assumptions; we don’t think this result does.

You might even say that the results were a bit predictable, as crazy as the journey was to get here. Thank you for joining us tonight.

12:35 AM

12:21 AM

At the beginning of the night, I noted that we might have expected the Gianforte attack to shift the final result by about 3 points in favor of Quist, based on studies of past scandals. That could have made a difference in a tight race. The problem for Quist is that he underperformed his benchmarks by about 5 to 10 points across the board in the early vote. So, even if Quist got the full effect of a normal scandal and the Election Day vote matched the early vote, it would not have been enough for him.

12:17 AM

For what it’s worth, the election day vote is indeed looking a bit better for Quist than the early vote, at least in the major cities. Quist’s 27-point lead in Missoula, for example, has widened to 28 points with roughly 8,000 more election day votes added in. There’s slight evidence of the same phenomenon in Billings. Like Nate said, it’s very possible the attack did make a pro-Quist difference. The problem for Quist is that it’s just nearly enough of a difference to win him the race — and it was probably never realistic for him to overcome his absentee deficit.

12:15 AM

I’m seeing people say on Twitter that Gianforte (allegedly) attacking a reporter didn’t make any difference in the end. It’s not a ridiculous argument — it looks as though Gianforte won the early vote (before the incident) by something like 5 to 10 points and the election day vote by about the same margin.

The complication, though, is that the early vote often differs quite a bit from the election day vote. In recent elections, the early vote has been more Democratic than the election day vote more often than not, although with a fair number of exceptions. And some polls suggested that would be true in Montana as well, with Quist being more competitive in the early vote than he was overall. So it’s possible, for instance, that Gianforte was on track to win the election day vote by 14 points, and now he’ll only win it by 7 or something because of the incident. We also don’t know how the incident affected election day turnout. Unfortunately, without either exit polls or more comprehensive pre-election polling, we can’t really make a lot of dispositive inferences about how much the incident ultimately mattered.

12:12 AM

I don’t want us to lose track of how freaking crazy the last 30 or so hours have been in this race. A reporter was allegedly assaulted by someone who is almost certainly going to be a member of Congress. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen ex-mayors (Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia comes to mind) do something close to it. I’ve seen members of Congress threaten physical violence against a reporter and win (Michael Grimm of New York). But I’ve never seen someone win a seat in Congress after allegedly assaulting someone. Amazing.

12:11 AM

The idea that Gianforte will win this race makes a lot of Democrats’ stomachs turn. But believe it or not, as long as the margin stays in the 5 percent to 10 percent range, I’m still of the mind that this result will bode well for Democrats nationally. Keep in mind what Nate said at the beginning of the night: “A few weeks ago, [5 to 10] would probably have been regarded as a good result for Democrats. But to the extent that expectations matter, Republicans had done a better job of managing them even before the body-slam incident. So this might be interpreted as a fairly poor result for Democrats, even though it could be a pretty good one by the numbers.”

12:04 AM

Weigel and Kane make a good point in the tweets Nate linked to below:

Yes, the national environment is important, but candidate quality matters. It can help make what might have been a 3-point loss into a 3-point win. Quist was probably a better candidate than Gianforte, but that’s a pretty low bar.

12:02 AM

With Gianforte’s lead at over 22,000, I’m sticking a fork in it (along with Decision Desk HQ).

12:02 AM

Democrats are going to have a few things to debate about this Montana race. Was Quist the right candidate? Did they put enough money into the race? Obviously, Gianforte was a long way from being a perfect candidate also. The thing is, though, the results from the special elections we’ve had so far actually tell a pretty consistent story, despite the differing circumstances in each race.

12:00 AM

Our friends over at Decision Desk HQ have called the race for Gianforte. I’m not sure I’m at that stage yet. (I’m a fairly cautious guy.) Though there is no denying that it’s looking really good for Gianforte.

11:59 PM

So it’s going to be at least a little bit interesting to see a sitting member of Congress appear in court for an assault charge, as Gianforte will if these results hold. Republicans, however, have shown no sign of distancing themselves from him.

11:58 PM

11:55 PM

In non-election news, the Pittsburgh Penguins just scored in double overtime to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s now been almost a quarter-century since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

11:54 PM

I think people focused a lot on the college/non-college divide in 2016. But even after you control for education, people with the same level of schooling voted more in favor of Trump in rural areas.

11:50 PM

To Nate’s urban/rural point, it’s the same divide we saw between Kansas 4’s benchmarks and its actual results. You can’t lose a lot of money these days betting on a widening urban/rural gulf.

11:49 PM

For those keeping track, Gianforte’s lead is now 6 points with what I’d think is about two-thirds of the votes counted. It’ll probably deviate a little bit from there, but the consensus seems to be that the final margin will end up in about this range.

11:48 PM

The irony is that Montana and South Carolina 5 have elected Democrats to federal office in the past decade, and Georgia 6 hasn’t in a generation. But Democrats’ best chance is in Georgia 6, for a very simple reason: Trump only carried it by a point, whereas he carried Montana by 21 points and South Carolina 5 by 18 points. An emerging theme for 2018 is that Democrats may have their best chances in places that have voted Republican the longest (i.e., wealthy suburbs), whereas many areas that traditionally elected Democrats are slipping away.

11:47 PM

Even relative to 2016 results — which already featured a big urban/rural divide — we’re seeing one tonight. In Montana’s most populous counties, Quist is running only about 3 or 4 points behind the benchmarks he’d need to win (although, Yellowstone is a big exception to that so far). But in the smaller, more rural ones, he’s running maybe 12 points behind his benchmarks.

11:41 PM

Speaking of that Georgia 6 special election, June 20 will also feature a special election in South Carolina 5. That’s a district that leans 19 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole on the presidential level. The only poll I’ve seen from there has the Republican Ralph Norman leading the Democrat Archie Parnell by 13 points. So that might be another “moral victory” for the Democrat situation.

11:35 PM

11:35 PM

As far as “moral victories” go … we’ve argued that the results in Kansas and Montana are good for Democrats because they’re consistent with a map that’s much more strongly Democratic-leaning than normal. Just not quite enough to flip those very red districts (presuming there’s not a last-minute comeback by Quist tonight). Georgia 6, on the other hand, is still pretty red-leaning but much closer to being a bona fide swing district. I don’t think the moral victory argument will work well there if the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, loses; it should be a winnable seat for Democrats under these conditions.

11:30 PM

One thing Dave pointed out on Twitter that’s worth mentioning here: Keep an eye on if Gianforte underperforms his numbers from the governor’s race in some of the larger counties and outperforms in some of the rural counties. Flathead is one of the larger counties in the state, so perhaps Gianforte not doing that well there isn’t too surprising.

11:23 PM

Speak of the devil! Kalispell just reported in a boatload of votes … and they’re actually not terrible for Quist. Gianforte leads there 55 percent to 41 percent with around 22,000 votes tallied. Who knows how representative those precincts are, but Gianforte won there 56 percent to 40 percent last fall.

11:20 PM

Another bad omen for Quist is that we still have zero votes in from Flathead County (Kalispell), the state’s most Republican-leaning large county. The votes there are likely to push Gianforte’s lead into the range of 5 to 10 percentage points.

11:17 PM

I’m not saying we’ve reached an anti-climactic stage of the race, but the pace of results has begun to slow down considerably and I’ve increasingly got my eye on the hockey game (Game 7 — Penguins and Senators tied in overtime). What we’re mainly waiting for at this point is election day results from the big, urban (by Montana standards) counties.

11:14 PM

The Cook Report’s PVI (a bit more weighted to the 2012 election result than Harry’s adjusted partisanship) pegs Montana’s House seat at a score of R+11. That, more or less, means we think a Republican should win about 61 percent of the vote in a “neutral” political environment. When all is said and done, it’s likely Gianforte will be in the low to mid-50s. Keep in mind, the median House seat is only R+3, so, as Harry said, Democrats don’t need to win these kinds of districts to win the House. They need to over-perform by about 4 points on average, and Quist is on track to do that.

11:13 PM

One of the things so interesting about Montana is how much Democrats downplayed it in the days leading up to it. Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the DCCC, said it was a “tough path.” I don’t know if that was an act or not, but no one was expecting the Democrats to win here. Is it possible that the choke slam set unrealistic expectations in some people’s minds? Maybe.

11:10 PM

While there’s some county-by-county variation, there are hardly any places where Quist is outperforming the benchmarks he’d need to win. He’s just a couple of points behind those benchmarks in some places and somewhat further behind in others. But very few where he’s running even or ahead of them.

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