Montana ‘body slam’ candidate’s victory shows perils of early voting

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Republican Greg Giangorte celebrates with supporters after being declared the winner at a election night party for Montana’s special House election against Democrat Rob Quist at the Hilton Garden Inn on May 25, 2017 in Bozeman, Montana. | Janie Osborne/Getty Images

Believe it or not, they are still counting votes in the special election held Thursday in Montana. Greg Gianforte, the Republican nominee to replace former congressman and current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has been declared the winner over Democrat Rob Quist. Speculation had abounded that the race could tighten — or even flip to Democrats — because of Gianforte’s alleged assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the day before the election. This didn’t pan out, as Gianforte seems headed for a win in the six-to-seven-point range.


Here are four thoughts on the outcome:

1) Gianforte and Quist were both problematic candidates. Lost in all the hoopla about the “body slam” is the fact that Gianforte was coming off a loss in last year’s gubernatorial race, in which he had been pilloried as a rich, New Jersey-born businessman; not exactly the best fit for Montana. Quist, of course, was a singing cowboy who had performed at nudist resorts and had a long history of debt issues.

This probably plays better in Montana than you would think; even the debt issues are probably familiar to a lot of Montana ranchers.

Regardless, this race didn’t feature the strongest candidates. But overall, Gianforte was probably weaker than previous Republican candidates like Zinke and Dennis Rehberg, while Quist’s fundraising probably put him in a better position than your average Democrat in the state.

2) The alleged assault probably hurt Gianforte. There was some speculation that it might not, and the outcome seems consistent with this. It isn’t a crazy theory; picking up and tossing a reporter for a British newspaper isn’t necessarily the worst possible news in a state like Montana (or my home state of Oklahoma).

But I’m not sure this is what happened. Gianforte’s totals ran about even in the early vote and Election Day tallies. While this could be interpreted as evidence that the incident didn’t harm him, we should keep in mind that Republicans typically run ahead of Democrats in Election Day voting. We can’t know for certain, but it is entirely possible that Gianforte’s numbers were depressed by the incident, but that much of the vote was already locked in.

3) This illustrates the perils of lengthy early-voting periods. Voting had been going on in Montana for almost a month. While early voting provides some flexibility for voters, the evidence that it actually improves turnout is at best limited (with some evidence finding that it actually decreases turnout.

More importantly, to my mind, is that there’s something to be said for the idea of voters heading to the voting booth with the same information. While early voters tend to be more partisan – and hence less likely to change their votes in response to new information – there are incidents such as this that could do so (or in primaries, where candidates sometimes drop out before Election Day). There’s probably a happy medium to be found.

4) It’s hard to say how good a result this is for Democrats. It’s tempting to look at Donald Trump’s 20-point win in the state, observe Gianforte’s six-point victory, and conclude this is a positive for Democrats. But the reality is more complicated. Montana is a quirky state that is significantly more Democratic at the congressional and state levels than at the federal level.

For example, 2014 was an extremely good year for Republicans, who ran strong candidates for the House and Senate against weak opposition. Steve Daines, won the Senate seat by 18 points, while Zinke won by 16. In 2012, Republicans lost the gubernatorial race and the Senate race while winning the open House seat by about 10 points.

Of course, 2012 wasn’t such a great year for Republicans, so Gianforte’s relatively narrow win isn’t great news for Republicans. Still, dropping a couple points from a year where Republicans won 234 House seats isn’t terrible news, especially given Gianforte’s weaknesses as a candidate.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, where this column was posted. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority.

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