BOZEMAN – A new poll of Montana voters conducted jointly by Montana State University political scientists and the Montana Television Network indicates that Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte leads Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams by 7.5 points in the race for Montana’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The results show 8.6 percent of voters polled were still undecided with 2.4 percent opting for Libertarian candidate Elinor Swanson. An additional 1.3 percent opted for the “other” option.

David Parker, MSU associate professor of political science, who led a team of four MSU political scientists that conducted the poll, called Gianforte’s lead “statistically discernible.”

“Greg Gianforte is in a good position,” Parker said. He said that for Williams to win, she will need undecided voters to break her way. Also, Democrats, who favor her by nearly 95 percent, will have to show up in large numbers at the polls on Election Day, Nov. 6. He said 88.2 percent of GOP voters supported Gianforte.

KELLYGORHAM/MSU

“House races have always been subject to national partisan forces, and it appears — at least from when we collected our data — the Montana House race is following that pattern, with a Republican-leaning electorate indicating support for the incumbent Republican representative,” Parker said.

Among independent voters, 46.6 percent favored Williams compared to 34.2 percent for Gianforte. A total of 11.4 percent of independent voters were undecided.

Parker conducted the poll with fellow MSU political scientists Eric D. Raile, Sara Guenther and Elizabeth Shanahan. They mailed 10,400 questionnaires to registered Montana voters in mid-September. About 20 percent of those who received the questionnaire — 2,057 respondents — sent it back by Oct. 6, which is considered a very good response rate, Parker said. He added that the MSU political scientists opted for a mail-in poll because the response rate is historically better than polls conducted by phone.

The same team analyzed the data and are releasing the results this week in four parts. On Monday evening the team released the results of the Montana U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic incumbent Jon Tester leads Republican challenger Matt Rosendale by 3 points. Those results can be found here. The team will release a poll about state initiatives tomorrow, to be followed Friday by results about issues and approval ratings.

Parker said that the poll for the Montana House seat is remarkable for the stark educational divide among prospective voters. Gianforte is favored by 62.5 percent of voters who have less than a high school education, compared to Williams at 25.2 percent; 50.9 percent of voters with a high school degree prefer Gianforte as opposed to 34.2 percent for Williams; and 55.7 percent of those with an associate or junior college degree said they’d vote for Gianforte, with 30.3 percent for Williams. On the flip side, 53.6 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree preferred Williams compared to 37.1 for Gianforte. Williams was favored by 64.8 percent of voters with a graduate degree, compared to 28.3 for Gianforte.

“Holy diploma divide, Batman!” Parker said of the division. He said that the divide, which is starker in the House than the Senate race involving Tester and Rosendale, echoes the national pattern that gave Donald Trump his surprise victory as U.S. president in 2016. “To win, Williams likely must make up serious ground among less-educated individuals.”

Parker said preferences by gender and marital status were also of interest. Williams is favored by 46.8 percent of female voters while 41.1 percent of female voters prefer Gianforte. However, male voters preferred Gianforte by a full 20 points — 53.9 percent for Gianforte and 33.8 percent for Williams. And married men support Gianforte by nearly 30 percentage points more than Williams — 58.5 percent compared to 30.2 percent. That is nearly the same margin by which unmarried females prefer Williams (58.7 percent to 31.4 percent for Gianforte). Parker said 11.2 percent of married women were undecided, “perhaps indicating an opening for the Williams’ campaign to exploit.”

Gianforte is running for his first two-year term as Montana’s lone U.S. House representative. He was elected in June 2017 to finish the term of Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become the U.S. secretary of the Interior. Gianforte’s 2017 special election made national news when Gianforte assaulted a reporter on election eve, an incident caught on tape. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. That incident was recently highlighted by President Trump on a campaign visit to Missoula. Parker said he theorizes that the incident may have helped Gianforte with Montana male voters.

“Before that, Montana men may have considered Gianforte as a New Jersey computer guy,” Parker said.

The age of the voter also is a factor, according to the poll. Williams leads among voters 39 years old or younger. Gianforte leads in all age categories from 40 years and older.

Parker said that several events linked to the election occurred during the time that the questionnaire was out, including the contentious hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as well as a visit by Trump to Billings. However, he said while election-related events may cause a short-term bump in polls, voters return to baseline preferences after a few days.

For more information about the survey results, go to http://helpslab.montana.edu/.