The U.S. Senate race in Montana next year is shaping up to be a close one, according to Montana State University Billings poll results released Wednesday.
When asked which party's candidate they would vote for in the race for Jon Tester's U.S. Senate seat, about 36 percent of Montanans polled said they would vote for the Republican and 36 percent for the Democratic candidate, with about 25 percent still undecided.
Tester, a Democrat, is running for re-election against U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican.
Because of the closeness of the race, a third-party candidate, such as one representing Tea Party issues, could change the outcome of the election, said Craig Wilson, MSU Billings professor of political science.
"Even a couple of percentage points could make a difference," he said.
The statewide, random-sample poll surveyed 411 Montanans during the third week in October.
MSU Billings students conducted telephone surveys under the direction of Wilson, adjunct professor Cathy Grott and Scott Rickard, director of the Center for Applied Economic Research at MSU Billings.
Results also were close in the governor's race. Nearly 33 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Republican candidate, about 31 percent for the Democratic candidate and nearly 33 percent were undecided.
Nine Republicans, including three from Billings, and two Democrats so far have announced that they are running in that race.
Because the election is more than a year away and the list of candidates could change, MSU Billings' pollsters did not mention candidates by name. They only asked which party's candidate those polled supported.
Grott emphasized that public opinion polls are a snapshot in time and that many questions drew a large percentage of "undecided" responses.
Undecideds played a large role when residents were asked about the race for Montana's lone U.S. House seat, too. The biggest share of respondents — nearly 35 percent — said they were undecided. Thirty-four percent said they would back the Republican candidate and nearly 29 percent would support the Democrat.
Answering a question about how much the Tea Party movement reflects their political opinion, about 34 percent of those polled said "a great deal" or "moderately," while nearly 46 percent said "seldom" or "not at all."
That could indicate that the Tea Party's reach is greater than its grasp, Wilson said.
The Tea Party may have lots of sympathizers, but many fewer people who identify themselves as Tea Partiers.
When asked about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Canadian oil through Montana and other states, "a significant majority" of nearly 64 percent of those polled supported it, Wilson said. Only 14 percent opposed the pipeline, and nearly 23 percent were undecided.
But surprisingly, 55 percent said they felt global warming is occurring and only 34 percent said that it wasn't.
Responses to the two questions, expressing opposite ends of the environmental spectrum, don't seem to make sense, Wilson said, adding that polls sometimes show people aren't logically consistent in their opinions.
The poll also asked about a law passed by the 2011 Montana Legislature that placed more restrictions on medical marijuana use, an issue that drew the most debate during the session expect for the state's budget, Wilson said.
More than 62 percent supported the action and about 28 percent opposed it.
In a related topic, nearly 55 percent said they didn't want to see medical marijuana users be allowed to buy guns. About 30 percent were in favor.
Wilson predicted a high voter turnout for the 2012 election in Montana. With nearly 46 percent of those polled saying they were very interested in next year's general election, Wilson said Montana could be among the top 10 states with the highest percentage of registered voters who actually vote.
The MSU Billings poll made an extra effort this year to include cellphone users and younger people, 18-29 years of age, to reach a cross-section of the state's residents.
The poll's results have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.