More Montanans voted in the governor’s race than they did in the presidential one, a reversal of historic trends.

“This is very rare,” Carroll College Political Scientist Jeremy Johnson said. “Usually political scientists talk and study ‘voter roll-off,’ meaning that down-ballot races receive fewer total votes than the races at the top of the ticket, this year, the president of the United States.”

Voter roll-off typically is seen as a sign of people not having adequate information or not feeling engaged enough to vote in local elections compared to the federal races that tend to dominate news coverage and dinner discussions. This year, almost 15,000 Montanans, about 3 percent of people who cast ballots, skipped the presidential race. Only Vermont — the home of Bernie Sanders — saw a higher presidential under-vote of 7 percent. Thirteen other states had fewer votes in the presidential election than statewide races, but, on average, those ballots were just of 0.7 percent of the total cast there.  

Combined with flat or declined voter turnout in many counties, analysts said it appears Montanans were not particularly thrilled with their options.

“People were turned off by the presidential election, but some really wanted to have a say in the statewide offices,” said University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste. “Those were much more competitive and intense races — the governor’s race and the U.S. House race. The campaigns worked very hard and spent huge amounts of money.”

'You can't not vote'

Painter and art gallery owner Coila Evans was so torn over who to vote for in the presidential election that it took her almost all day to get down to her polling place in Roundup on Tuesday. Only a few counties had a higher percentage of support for Trump than Musselshell, where 81 percent of voters cast ballots for the Republican.

In the end, Evans didn’t pick anyone.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I wasn’t proud of either of them.”

Evans did vote in local and state races, mostly for Republicans, including Bozeman businessman Greg Gianforte for governor and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke for his second term in Congress. But she couldn’t back Trump because of what came out about his character during the campaign. Still, that didn’t mean she defaulted to Clinton.

“I thought it just can’t be. I’m a woman and I’m considering not voting for a woman,” Evans said. “But I had something to do that got me out of the house and I thought, ‘You can’t not vote.'"

Evans said turnout at the local level is critical, and named several city council and county commission races in past years that came down to just a few votes between candidates.

“It’s the first time I didn’t vote for a president,” she said. “But I cannot make a stance on any of them.”

Mike Richardson, a teacher from Missoula, said he, too, wrestled with whether to vote this year.

“I had serious discussions with friends of mine that I’m not happy with the two quote-unquote legitimate choices,” said the 29-year-old who had initially supported Sanders. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to get my message across that I need more and better choices that better match my opinion?’”

Like many other dissatisfied voters, Richardson saw three options: Vote for Clinton in the hope she would beat Trump; choose a third-party candidate whose views were not a perfect fit even though they had little chance of winning; or, not vote at all as a protest some hoped would trigger radical change in the current two-party system or the electoral college.

In the end, Richardson voted for Clinton. His roommate cast his ballot for Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Others simply chose not to vote.

Against the trend

Among the state’s 693,266 registered voters, 73.1 percent cast ballots, up from 72.2 percent in 2012 but down from 74.5 percent in 2008. Compared to an estimate of eligible voters, including those who might not have registered yet, turnout was 63.4 percent, down from 63.5 percent in 2012 and 67.1 percent in 2008, according to the United States Elections Project. Nationwide, turnout of eligible voters was 57 percent, ranging from 34 percent in Hawaii to 74 percent in Minnesota.

In many states around the country, fewer Americans voted for Clinton and Trump than for the major candidates in the last two presidential elections.

The picture in Montana is a little different.

Fitting the trend, Clinton was less popular, receiving 27,400 fewer votes than Obama secured in 2012 and 57,200 fewer than he received in 2008. Trump, however, was more popular than Romney or McCain, receiving 6,200 and 31,400 more votes respectively.

Because Montana does not ask voters to list party affiliation when they register, it is difficult to know which group is responsible for the gaps. Additionally, about 40 percent of Montanans identify as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans when surveyed.

A Mason-Dixon poll of registered and likely Montana voters Oct. 10-12 suggested that Independents might have played a significant role in the shift. In the poll, commissioned by Lee Newspapers, 50 percent of Independents said they would vote for Trump and 28 percent for Clinton. The poll had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. In 2012, a similar poll found 51 percent of Independents were for Romney and 33 percent for Obama. In 2008, 39 percent were for McCain and 41 percent for Obama.

Assuming those polls reflected actual voting on Election Day, it appears Independents who were divided but supportive of Obama grew more skeptical of the Democrat, and perhaps his promise for change, the longer he was in office. This year, Independents seem to have liked Clinton even less.

They likely were joined by some Democrats who were not thrilled about her candidacy either. Democrats running for statewide office received more votes than Clinton.

“The top of the Democratic ticket appealed less to working-class white voters in 2016 than four years earlier,” Johnson said. “Of course even four years ago Obama struggled with this demographic far more than earlier Democrats.”

'The issues got lost'

The low turnout among liberal-leaning voters might have had an effect on state races. For the first time in decades, Republicans won several statewide offices, such as superintendent of public instruction and state auditor.

Nonetheless, Montana lived up to its reputation for splitting tickets by re-electing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock even as it choose Trump for the presidency.

“Bullock was able to narrowly survive,” Johnson said. “There is less ticket splitting than in earlier years, so it is a testament to Bullock that he was able to win in a year when the Democratic presidential candidate lost Montana by 21 points.”

Like many Republicans, Norma Zolnikov blamed Gianforte’s loss on negative advertising by Bullock and the Democratic Governors Association that she felt muddied the waters and twisted the facts. The election was front and center at Zolnikov’s business, Blue Star Espresso, which is in a white dome-shamed building on the road into town from Billings. Zolnikov, the mother of Republican State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, heard all different viewpoints over the past few months.

“The issues got lost,” Zolnikov said. “I’d hear some did not vote for Gianforte because he’s not from Montana. That comes straight out of the mudslinging campaign. I also heard he’s a millionaire that's buying the election. That’s just campaign rhetoric.”

Glacier County had the state’s highest turnout increase. The percentage of registered voters who cast ballots increased 11.5 percent since 2008, almost three times the average among the 25 counties that saw an increase over that period.  

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation makes up most of the county, although about a third of the population is white. Candidates from both parties campaigned in Browning, but Democrats in particular focused on registering voters there. House candidate Denise Juneau grew up in Browning, although she is an enrolled member of another tribe, and her family is well known in the community. She made multiple campaign stops in Indian Country, sometimes introducing Native voters to other Democrats running for statewide office.

“(It) suggests the Juneau campaign was successful in bringing out Native American voters and may augur for more active Native American participation in the elections in the future,” Johnson said.


Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.

Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.