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The television in the coffee shop where Leanna Hoch works is tuned to news programs in the morning. It spurs folks getting a morning coffee to discuss their political proclivities, something she won’t miss after the Nov. 8 election.

And don’t even mention the commercials.

The election is 22 days away, and voters like Hoch, a 21-year-old Billings resident who works a couple jobs in addition to the coffee shop, are weary. As this long season draws to a close, the margin between the two men vying to be Montana’s next governor is razor-thin and could all be decided by who shows up to vote.

If the 2016 election for governor were held today, who would you vote for?

A poll conducted last week by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research for Lee Newspapers shows incumbent Democratic Steve Bullock is ahead of Republican challenger Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman tech entrepreneur, 47 to 45 percent. That's within the margin of error and with 6 percent of voters undecided. Libertarian Ted Dunlap was at 2 percent.

Broken down by region, the race is in a virtual tie in Eastern Montana, with Bullock up 45-44 percent. Ten percent of voters, the highest amount in the state, are still undecided there. The race is also tight in the highly contested Great Falls region, where Gianforte was up, but within the margin of error, 48-45.

Around Billings, a right-leaning area Democrats need to do well in to find victory in a presidentially red state like Montana, Gianforte held 52 percent of decided voters to Bullock's 43. As expected, Bullock was up in union-heavy Butte and the state capital of Helena, by 17 points at 55-38.

Gubernatorial election by gender

  • Men
  • Women

On paper, poll results for the Missoula area appeared to lean more conservative, with Gianforte leading 46-44, though pollsters lumped together the populated and often Republican-voting Flathead and Ravalli counties, and smaller and conservative Granite, Mineral, Sanders, Lake and Lincoln counties, with the more liberal university town.

“In general the governor’s race is incredibly close," said Lee Banville, a political researcher and journalism professor at the University of Montana. “It’s going to come down to turnout. Are the Democrats going to get their voters to show up?”

Predicting turnout has been unlike any previous election, said Jeremy Johnson, an associate political science professor at Carroll College in Helena. There have never been less popular presidential candidates, which he said could possibly drive down turnout. "If a certain group of voters don't come out to vote, it could affect down-ticket," he said. But presidential elections tend to draw voters and Montana typically has high turnout, he added.

Hoch said she will vote, and that vote will be for Bullock. A high school teacher once told her it doesn’t matter who is at the top of the ticket because statewide candidates are the ones who really change what happens in the state.

“I hate his commercials,” she said about Gianforte. “I hate how he keeps telling us people coming over from other countries are dangerous.”

“It’s off-putting,” her friend Julie Ruddock, 21, interjected. Also from Billings, Ruddock said she didn’t know much about either candidate. She wasn’t sure how she would cast her ballot in the governor's race, though her political leanings are Democratic at the top of the ticket.

Gubernatorial election by age

  • 18-34
  • 35-49
  • 49-64
  • 65+

Less uncertain were companions Sydney Reiter, of Billings and Molly Fedje, originally from Colstrip, both 21, who said they just don’t plan to vote. Reiter said she’s unimpressed by candidates at the top of the ticket and it’s turned her off to the entire election, while Fedje favors Clinton but just doesn't know enough about the governor's race.

Those commercials frustrating Hoch are a wise political play for Gianforte, according to Dave Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. A quarter of people polled said that national security and fighting terrorism were the most important issue to them in this year's election, beating the economy and jobs by 1 percentage point.

"That might demonstrate why the Gianforte campaign is running those advertisements on Syrian refugees," Parker said. "It is about the fear."

Banville agreed, saying voters are making decisions based on anxiety and not a candidate's policies or plans. That could be a trickle-down effect from the presidential race.

Do you feel things in Montana are on the right track or the wrong track?

  • Dems
  • Reps
  • Inds

It might also help explain why although 48 percent of voters feel Montana is on the right track, which would seem to indicate people are happy with the job the incumbent is doing, Bullock is not polling higher. Thirty-five percent of people polled said they feel the state is on the wrong track, while 17 percent were not sure.

"Gianforte shouldn't be doing so well," Banville said. "To me what this poll is saying is half the voters are scared. ... (Gianforte's) basic message is 'I'm going to protect you from terrorists. I'm going to get you good-paying jobs. I'm going to stand up to the federal government.' That resonates if you're someone who is worried."

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At GOP headquarters in Missoula, Lisa Nichols sat making calls as a volunteer. She grew up in Oklahoma and lived briefly in Colorado before recently moving to Montana as part of a promotion for her husband, a regional supervisor for DirectTV. While she waited to start a new job, she decided to help out the party.

“I’ve always been a strong Republican,” she said. “Republican values are better for the economy and better for growing jobs for people, and I believe in more local control, not this big nanny state the Democrats kind of push on people.”

Pundits expect it could all come down to how independents, 6 percent of whom are undecided, break. Independents were almost evenly split on the direction the state is going, with 44 percent saying Montana is on the right track, 39 percent on the wrong track and 17 percent not sure.

“That independent number is what’s going to become really important,” Banville said. “It’s really kind of up for grabs. Then it becomes a question of are they concerned about health care or terrorists? Are they concerned about government spending or some other issues that might push them toward Bullock? Outside of turnout they are the most important question."

Parker said independents tend to break for incumbents, which is good news for Bullock.

Montana Democratic Party spokeswoman Nancy Keenan called the poll a "snapshot in time" and said it doesn't determine the outcome of an election.

"I think Steve Bullock is accustomed to tight races," she said. "Montanans are fiercely independent. And they vote for people that represent their values and the people they believe can get the job done. ... It's the individuality of Montanans that should be highlighted here."

Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said the numbers don't look good for the incumbent. "I think that this is a really dim outlook for a sitting governor when less than half of the voters think the state is on the right track."

For Parker, the race reminds him of another close contest, Bullock's first campaign for governor when he beat Republican Rick Hill in 2012. It took more than 17 hours after polls closed to declare the winner.

"This is probably the squeaker of the night," he said.

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Coming Monday: The race for U.S. House. 

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.